Cash gifts banned in new Philadelphia Board of Ethics proposal

    The Philadelphia Board of Ethics has apparently resolved a major battle with civic watchdog groups who want a policy that strictly bans city employees from accepting cash gifts from people who have business with the city.

    A revised opinion from the city law department will permit the board to take a hard line and ban cash gifts, according to the board’s executive director, Shane Creamer.

    The Ethics Board staff has now crafted a proposed standard for gifts that bars a city employee from taking anything worth more than $50 from someone whose interests the employee could affect, and prohibits cash gifts entirely.

    It wasn’t easy getting there.

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    City law bars employees from accepting gifts “of substantial economic value” from people whose interests they could affect, and for months, the Ethics Board has worked to clarify just what that means.

    An initial proposal barred a gift of anything worth more than $200, and limited cash gifts to no more than $50.

    Watchdog groups were appalled.

    “Cash. My God, cash! A city policy that allows cash payments?” said Committee of Seventy Policy Director Ellen Kaplan at an earlier hearing.

    The proposal wasn’t quite a strange as it sounds.

    Because existing city law did permit some gifts, and things of value as defined in case law does include cash, the city law department told the board it could not simply ban cash gifts.

    After a lot of criticism, the law department re-considered and decided a zero tolerance for cash is legal. So Kaplan feels better about the new proposal, which bans cash and includes a new, lower limit of $50 on the value of non-cash gifts.

    “It’s what many other cities have done, and it’s a big improvement from the original policy,” Kaplan said.

    Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer said in the past that, without clear standards, officials had to consider gifts on a case by case basis.

    “Now, going forward, everyone will know what is and is not acceptable, and it also sets up clear guidelines for enforcement,” Creamer said.

    Violating the gifts policy could result in a $1,000 fine. The Ethics Board may vote to adopt the gift regulations next month.

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