Keeping ethics rules simple and strict is the best path

 The Philadelphia Ethics Board is putting some new rules for giving gifts to city officials up for discussion. (Photo illustration by Kim Paynter/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Ethics Board is putting some new rules for giving gifts to city officials up for discussion. (Photo illustration by Kim Paynter/WHYY)

“Thanks, but sorry, I can’t accept that. Our ethics rules don’t allow it.”

Now, was that so hard? Trust me: The pain is minor, and it will fade.

The ethical atmosphere at Philadelphia City Hall is better these days than it’s been in a very long time. Credit the Nutter administration for trying hard.

So it’s painful to see the city’s Board of Ethics fiddling with its rules for how and when city employees can accept gifts. The proposal sets a limit of $200 per year per source. Yikes. That’s kind of like inviting to dinner someone who’s stayed sober for five years, and pouring him a glass of wine. Hey, it’s just one, what harm could it do?

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The best ethics rule on accepting gifts from people whose interests your work might affect is this: Don’t. Simply don’t.

I know what I’m about to say is going to make some of you snort and chuckle, but it really is true: Serious journalists in the U.S. are among the most ethical people on the planet. In the newsrooms where I’ve worked, for the journalists I most respect, this has always been the rule: Take nothing from anyone you or your newsroom covers – or might cover, ever.

It’s the best rule. It’s simple. It’s clear. It eliminates the stress and guesswork. The whole mess with the City Board of Ethics stems from requests to clarify what the city ban on “gifts of substantial value” means. Surely, some city workers reason, that can’t mean a couple of Flyers tickets.

Sure it can. That’s exactly what it means. Take enough $20 bribes and pretty soon those Andrew Jacksons add up to some serious coin.

Guided by the ethics rules of newsrooms where I’ve worked, I do not accept anything – bought lunch, speaking fee, sports tickets – from anyone in this region – except close friends whom I would recuse myself from covering anyway. A few times, when people just insisted on paying for a lunch, I sent a check along the next day. If I’m offered an honorarium for speaking, I ask it be donated to a charity.

I tell you all this not to curry applause. It’s just to affirm that living inside strict ethics rules is easier, and more satisfying, than some people make it out to be.

Now, not everything is clear cut. Should the theater reviewer pay for the play ticket? Policies differ. What to do when the school board president also heads the foundation that gives you a grant necessary to the functioning of your nonprofit? Just be honest with your audience about the conflict.

But to quote Nancy Reagan, the best rule of thumb is: Just say no. That keeps things clear. Unfortunately, the city ethics board is on the road to murky.

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