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Proposed changes to rules on gifts to public officials draw protests

 

The state’s ethics watchdog panel is considering what its chairwoman calls "a complete overhaul" of regulations on gifts to public officials, and some of the proposals drew objections Friday from open-government advocates.

California Common Cause welcomed many of the changes for making the rules clearer but worries that others could create loopholes allowing special interests to try to exert undue influence through gifts.

"Unfortunately, in some cases, more specificity can potentially open up more opportunities for special interests to 'game the system,’"wrote Phillip Ung,  the group’s policy advocate, in a letter to the state Fair Political Practices Commission on Friday. The panel is set to vote on the changes Thursday.

Commission Chairwoman Ann Ravel said Friday the changes proposed by the staff are aimed at making the gift rules "more clear" and more reflective of the law and advice the agency has provided to public officials over the years.

Currently, public officials are prevented from accepting gifts worth more than $420 from a single source or $10 from a registered lobbyist, and must publicly disclose gifts. The new rules would clarify that gifts from family members, longtime friends and someone the official is dating are not subject to reporting requirements.

Ung  and attorney Robert Stern, who helped write the Political Reform Act, are concerned that the panel’s staff has also proposed to exempt from the limits "home hospitality" gifts, including food, drink and lodging provided in a home by the home’s owner. "The proposed regulations do nothing to prevent registered lobbyists from providing home hospitality, even though such gifts would be highly influential and would most certainly exceed the lobbyist’s gift limit," Ung wrote to the commission. Ravel said she would not comment on the issue until she has had a chance to review the letter.

Stern also objects to a proposal that he said would allow government officials to travel overseas and have their expenses paid for by a special interest as long as the travel relates to a governmental purpose and could have been reimbursed by the official’s agency. "Philosophically, I have a problem opening up more loopholes for travel paid for by special interests," Stern wrote.

 

-- Patrick McGreevy, reporting from Sacramento

 
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