Blogger Russ Racop raises an interesting question, as he sometimes does amid assorted provocations, about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ gift of free tickets for North Little Rock cops to attend any one of the Dallas Cowboys’ final five football games this year.
Racop cites the Arkansas statute:
21-8-801. Prohibited acts generally.
(a) No public servant shall:
(1) Receive a gift or compensation as defined in 21-8-401 et seq., other than income and benefits from the governmental body to which he or she is duly entitled, for the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his or her office or position;
North Little Rock acknowledged the potential conflict in City Council passage this week of a resolution acknowledging a gift of tickets and travel costs by Jones, a North Little Rock, native, in recognition of outstanding community work by the police.
The resolution says, in part:
The City Council expressly intends that the benefits described in this Resolution shall be deemed to be received by the City and passed directly to NLRPD uniformed officers without diminishment, according to the intent of the donor, without regard to actual receipt by the city. The City Council further intends that, for the purpose of compliance with state ethics laws including A.C.A. 21-8-801, the benefits described in this Resolution shall be deemed to be benefits from the governmental body which the officers are entitled to receive.
Racop suggests city government is being used to skirt the ethics law. I have a call in to City Attorney Jason Carter for his response to that. One additional question is this: If the gift is viewed as being deemed to be given by the employer (the city), does that make it taxable?
I’m also hoping to talk to Ethics Commisson Director Graham Sloan about it. I searched the Ethics Commission rules on the subject and found this relative to gifts to public servants.:
§ 303 Receipt of Gifts by Public Servants
(a) No public servant shall receive a gift for the performance of the duties and responsibilities of his or her office or position.
(b) For purposes of this rule, a gift shall be prohibited if it is intended to reward a public servant for doing his or her job or it is intended as a reward for past or future action. In contrast to bribery which requires a showing that a gift and some official action motivated each other, a gift is prohibited by this rule if the gift is for or because of the action. In order for a gift to be prohibited, it need not be shown that the official action was for or because of the gift.
(c) A public servant is not prohibited from receiving an item conferred to show appreciation for the public servant’s job performance (i.e., to reward the public servant for doing his or her job) so long as the value of the item does not exceed $100. Items costing more than $100 which are given to public servants to show appreciation for their efforts (i.e., to reward them for doing their job) or to reward them for past or future action are prohibited under this rule.
Clearly you can give gifts of appreciation to police officers so long as the item isn’t worth more than $100. Standing room only tickets at Cowboy Stadium cost as little as $67, but seats go for more. And then there are travel and hotel costs, which Jones has also promised. Jones is also giving tickets not just to roughly 180 uniformed officers, but also to immediate family members.
This has been a feel-good story all over media this week, but it doesn’t mean Racop may not have a point in pouring some rain on the parade.
There are sound reasons not to allow gifts to public servants for performing their jobs. And there are good reasons for public agenciesnot to serve as ways around the rule. Today, the issue might be a magnanimous and heartfelt gift by a hometown boy to a police force that has established a reputation for community policing. Another day it might be a pretext for something darker.
UPDATE: Sloan directed me to the rules I’d already reviewed. He can’t comment on specific cases. Carter didn’t seem too concerned. His response to my question about both the ethics law and potential for taxes:
I don’t feel qualified to say what should or should not be deemed taxable income. That’s something that our police officers should consider when accepting the benefits.
The City adopted a resolution approving of Mr. Jones’ offer in order to avoid an ethics violation. I mean, they wanted to brag on Mr. Jones and the department, too. But they primarily needed to establish the transparency and approval needed to stay within ethics laws.
I suppose your citizen complainant might argue that I renewed my license plate as a pretext for avoiding a ticket?
1) I can find no place in the law that says disclosure cures an illegal gift. Or that deeming the gift to come from the city — though it does not, even mechanically — makes it legal. Something that is illegal by direct means is also illegal by indirect means.
2) I think the citizen complaint is that giving valuable gifts to public servants can influence preferential treatment, even subtly, and that’s why the law exists.
UPDATE: Carter responds further to disagree with my analysis.
I respectfully disagree.
The applicable ethics statute (A.C.A. 21-8-801) specifically allows for “ … income and benefits from the governmental body … ” as exceptions to the gift prohibition. The applicable governance statute (A.C.A. 14-51-304) clearly establishes City Council as the sole authority to determine the income of police officers. I doubt that the Ethics Commission has the authority (or desire) to question the City Council’s determination of an employee benefit – even one that originates externally.
As to your other email, “There’s no provision in the law that says disclosure cures a rule violation.” I agree. But that’s not to say that disclosure is inappropriate. Disclosure is central to governmental ethics and public trust. It also undermines your argument that “the rules were meant to prohibit this sort of thing” The rules, in my humble opinion, are meant to prevent public employees from being steered in their public duties by a private benefit. It’s the back-scratching that is to be stopped, not appreciation that is acknowledged and accepted by proper authority.
We shall see. Racop says he intends to file a formal ethics complaint. I believe the gift is clearly the sort of thing the ethics rule was meant to prohibit. If it is allowed to slide by as income and benefits from a government body, I’d put on my CPA hat and advise the officers who take it to declare it as income for tax purposes.