Opinion: Yes to the ‘No, thank you’ rule
Now that Josh Shapiro has been sworn in as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor, one of the most ethical considerations he faces is how he handles gift-giving.
As far as I am concerned, it is a no-brainer to continue the practice instituted by former Gov. Robert Casey then reinstituted by Shapiro’s predecessor, Tom Wolf, who adopted a code of ethics for his transition team and members of his administration. It became known as the “No, thank you” rule, and it meant that no one who worked for him in the executive branch was able to accept any gifts of a political nature or one that could be perceived as an attempt to seek political favors.
Wolf’s executive order went well beyond the state law that allowed officials to accept gifts of up to $250 without reporting them or gifts worth more than this amount so long as they are disclosed. The existing state law sets a $650 threshold for travel, hospitality and lodging.
Wolf’s mandate went further than just gifts, because it required disclosures of potential conflicts of interest and a pledge not to use the person’s government position for personal gain. The pledge famously said that the person signing it will be “impartial and beholden to the people.”
Some in Wolf’s administration said the former governor’s strict policies while well-intentioned were impractical, so Shapiro has loosened the leash a bit, which is fine by me, because it still has most of the significant ethical constraints on members of the administration when it comes to accepting things of value.
Admittedly, some of Wolf’s actions were extreme, such as the time that he pulled out a dollar bill to pay for a bottle of water given to him at a radio interview.
Wolf, who was independently wealthy because of the success of his family business in the York area, took no compensation during his eight years in office. His no-gift ban was partially in response to critics of his predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett, who said that he accepted gifts of more than $28,000 during his one four-year term in office. These included tickets to Broadway shows, sporting events, along with a free yachting vacation and other perks.
Wolf appointees were told up front: “No free lunches, no free trips, no free anything,” according to state watchdog Common Cause of Pennsylvania, which had long sought such a ban. Common Cause would like an across-the-board ban on gifts, even for members of the General Assembly, but representatives and senators have dodged acting on proposed legislation of this nature for years.
Wolf was not the first to have such a strict ban on accepting gifts. The late Gov. Robert P. Casey, who served from 1963-68, and the father of the current U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, had a similar ban and was relentless in enforcing it.
Shapiro’s policy will now allow employees to accept food and refreshments when representing the Commonwealth in an official capacity so long as it is not more than the federal government’s daily allowance, which varies by meal and location.
Shapiro also raised the number of exceptions to the gift ban. For example, employees are now allowed to accept promotional gifts such as pens, calendars, mugs and T-shirts as well as plaques and award certificates.
In the current political world where ethics seemingly has gone out the window, I am convinced that we need to re-establish this bedrock of governance to restore confidence in our officials.
I was looking for a simple definition for ethics, and it is this: “Ethics examines the rational justification for our moral judgments, studies what is morally right or wrong, just or unjust. In a broader sense, ethics reflects on humans and their interaction with other humans, on freedom, on responsibility and on justice.”
A return to ethical behavior among our governing bodies will not occur by flipping a switch. Instead, it will happen one small step at a time, and it will depend on all of us holding those who represent us, from the president on down, responsible for ethical behavior.
By Bruce Frassinelliemail@example.com