OK, here’s the tutorial. The Ethics Laws have three provisions that prohibit public officials from taking gifts, section 3, 23(b)2, and 23(b)3 of chapter 268A. Call it belt and suspenders. We lost the suspenders (section 3) when the Scaccia decision came down. But did that mean that Scaccia got off scot free? No. The court agreed that Scaccia violated 23(b)3 and another provision relating to lobbyist gifts (which is actually yet another section dealing with gifts). Since the Scaccia ruling, dozens of employees have been found to have taken illegal gifts and fined-not under section 3-the only section that actually uses the term “gift,” but under those other catch-all provisions . Section 23(b)2 prohibits a public employee from accepting unwarranted privileges, and the Ethics Commission has ruled that a gift because of one’s official position is unwarranted. Section 23(b)3 prohibits an official from acting in a manner that a reasonable person could conclude is biased, and the Commission (and the courts) have ruled that gifts could create such an impression.
There are some other differences-section 3 applies to both the giver and the public official, and 23(b)2 and 23(b)3 only apply to the public official. 23(b)3 can be cured by an official disclosure in advance, 23(b)2 cannot. Section 3 is both criminal and civil and the others are only civil.
Bottom line? The belt is holding. Maybe uncomfortably, but it’s there. The lack of our gifts section is a disappointment, but not a fatal flaw in the House bill, as so many on this page have written. It is also important to consider what is in the bill and how long we have been fighting for any number of these provisions. No recent Speaker (except Sal DiMasi on his way out the door)has wanted to touch ANY of these issues with a ten-foot pole, let alone pass the dozens that are in the bill. Now we are likely to get (just to name a few): significantly increased penalties, regulatory authority for the Ethics Commission and Secretary, more enforcement tools, better revolving door laws, civil enforcement power for lobbying laws, mandatory ethics education, more people registering….
I agree that these are not game changing reforms. As others have mentioned, public financing of elections, pay-to-play restriction, transparency reforms, IRV etc, would have a greater impact on the political culture. No one has fought longer and harder than Common Cause to keep them on the agenda and moving forward. But changing the game is a longer and harder goal.
And I can guarantee that if you discard significant incremental improvements as meaningless failures, we will never get there.