Governor Shapiro eases ban on gifts to Pennsylvania officials Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania governor officials are allowed to accept the occasional free lunch while on duty.

In one of the first notable changes of the new administration, Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said on Friday he eased a ban on gifts that had been in place since the start of his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe’s eight-year term. Announced.

Wolfe’s gift-giving rules were known to be strict, requiring officials to pay cash if they received items such as disposable water bottles.

Shapiro’s version allows employees to receive food or snacks worth that amount or less if they “represent the Federation in an official capacity.” federal per diem rateThese rates already serve as the basis for public service coverage levels in other states. model About per diem rates for state legislators and senators.

Exact amounts range from as low as $13 to as high as $36, depending on the meal and location.

Shapiro has also increased the number of exceptions to its no-gift ban. State employees can now receive award plaques and certificates. Promotional gifts such as pens, mugs, t-shirts and calendars. A small gift to commemorate a major life event such as marriage, illness, or retirement.

But otherwise, the policy prohibits state employees from accepting cash, event tickets, travel, and other larger gifts from anyone seeking to influence state behavior. He clarified that this is still a “complete and complete zero-tolerance policy for lobbyists,” but that federal employees need to feel comfortable “having coffee” with voters.

“We have to talk again. We have to have a meaningful dialogue,” Shapiro said at a news conference on Friday.

Shapiro’s new policy also clarifies policy language for state employees to receive gifts from friends, family members, and other close associates.

In addition, members of Shapiro’s Cabinet, his office staff, and senior government officials (approximately 3,500 combined) are required to complete an ethics training course. They also require, among other requirements, a code of good faith to “put the interests of federal citizens ahead of their own” and “protect all classified or protected information in their possession or access.” You must sign a pledge.

Failure to follow the policy may result in disciplinary action, including termination.

Khalif Ali, executive director of the Common Cause, a good government group that advocates transparency, said he had no problem with the easing of Wolf’s policies, but warned that more transparency might be needed. bottom.

“In some ways, I think it’s great that he took action so quickly and set an ethical precedent,” Ali said. “If restrictions are eased, [for] Even if the gifts given are of low rank, it is an opportunity for those gifts to be reported and the public to know about them. ”

But Democrats, Republicans, and the newspaper’s editorial board all believe the Shapiro administration is already low transparency than Shapiro’s predecessor Wolfe and former Republican Governor Tom Corbett.

For example, the new governor is breaking the precedent set by Wolfe and Corbett by refusing to disclose the private donors who funded the inauguration celebrations.

At a recent press conference, when asked if he planned to release the names of his donors, Shapiro only said that he intended to “follow the law” when reporting the details of his funding.

Shapiro also had more than 300 members of his gubernatorial transition team sign nondisclosure agreements barring them from discussing political strategy, phone records, and other information at the risk of heavy fines. The penalty was more severe than that imposed by Wolfe.

Wolf’s own employees, as well as lawmakers and lobbyists who need to interact with them, have criticized his strict gift ban over the years.

His policy is to ensure that state officials do not receive “gifts, gratuities, or gratuities” from anyone who is regulated by or under a contract with the state or who has “interests that may be materially affected.” , favors, entertainment, hospitality, loans, or anything else of monetary value”. by the performance or failure of an employee to perform official duties; ”

Several former Wolfe administration officials told Spotlight PA that the rules were in fact so strict that employees skipped meals with community groups.

One former staff member, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said Wolff was independently wealthy, unlike most of his employees, and was borne by outside groups, as his policy requires. He said he could afford to reimburse the costs.

JJ Abbott, a political consultant and former spokesperson for Wolfe, noted that the rule was enacted amid a series of ethics scandals starring Corbett. state legislatorCorbett accepted tickets Yacht trips from individuals with policy priorities before state governments, but also for big sporting events.

Against that backdrop, “this was the right thing to do in terms of showing the difference between the Wolff administration and how people think about Harrisburg,” Abbott said.

In retrospect, Abbott acknowledged that the severity of the ban may have limited staff’s ability to reach out to communities outside Harrisburg and network within the city’s political circles. However, he argued that maintaining it was still necessary to avoid ethical missteps when dealing with powerful lobbies calling for pet policy adjustments.

“The gift ban doesn’t have to apply to Rotary club lunches,” Abbott says. “You should apply for big money profits that try to get you to sporting events.”

Unlike the executive branch, the Pennsylvania Legislature has few rules or restrictions on gifts to legislators other than a ban on cash gifts and an annual reporting requirement.

For years, Michael Pollack, executive director of the good government group March on Harrisburg, has been protesting and urging lawmakers to tighten up the state’s ethics rules.

Shapiro’s policy was a slight step backwards, but Pollack saw it as similar to many of the bills the group had supported in Congress that tightened standards for gifts to lawmakers.

“This is less than Governor Wolfe’s Zero Exceptions bill, but it may be relevant to many legislators,” Pollack said.

He encouraged Shapiro to use his term to engage the General Assembly on broader changes to ethics guidelines, such as enforcing campaign funding limits and tightening rules for state employees seeking private employment after public service. said he wants to

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