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Just how tough is the proposed Erie County ethics law?

Erie County leaders say their proposed ethics law would be among the toughest around.

How tough?

Well, that depends on how you interpret the fine print.

Consider accepting outside gifts, for example.

The City of Buffalo's code rules out accepting gifts exceeding $100 in value. Amherst puts the limit at $75. The proposed county law forbids anything above "nominal" or token value.

But the county code would come with a page and half of single-spaced gift "exceptions." That includes an exception for complimentary admission to a "widely attended event" and gifts from persons with "a personal relationship with the county official."

So could an Erie County legislator accept a 200-level Sabres or Bills tickets for free?

"I apologize, but being a lawyer, I look at words very carefully," Chis G. Trapp, vice chairman of the Erie County Ethics Board, said during a Legislature hearing on the proposed ethics law. "And when I look at the way that is worded, it certainly has been broadly written to include everything from Bills games to Sabres games to whatever."

County Executive Mark Poloncarz reads it differently.

"I think everyone would agree that accepting tickets to something like that would be illegal," Poloncarz said.

Even those who agree with Poloncarz's interpretation say the proposal could be read another way.

"I agree with the county executive that that's not the intent of the language," said Legislature Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, a co-sponsor of the law with Thomas Loughran, D-Amherst. "However, it is so ambiguous that it could be read that way."

And what about the county official who cites a "personal relationship" with a gift giver? Could that include a buddy who might be in a position of influence or power?

"This appears to be the golfing foursome exception," Trapp wrote in a detailed letter to the Legislature.

But Poloncarz sees it as more than a golfing buddy. He said the term "personal relationship" was meant to include someone with an intimate relationship with a county official. He said it shouldn't be an issue if an official's girlfriend or boyfriend gives a Christmas present.

The proposed law provides more details about how exceptions like "widely attended event" or "personal relationship" would be applied. The "widely attended event," for instance, should be "related to the attendee's duties or responsibilities or which allows a public officials to perform a ceremonial function appropriate to his or her position."

Erie County Ethics Board members, however, raised enough questions about the proposed law that lawmakers offered a bunch of loophole-closing amendments last week.

'Model language'

Much of the phrasing included in the proposed law was pulled from model ethics language found elsewhere, Poloncarz said.

Proposed Erie County Ethics Law (excluding amendments)

The categories of gift exceptions in the county's proposed ethics law are fairly standard, said Mark L. Davies, former executive director of the NYC Conflicts of Interest Board and former executive director of the Temporary State Commission on Local Government Ethics. But crafting a clear law that addresses all local concerns is too complicated to simply cut-and-paste language from other ethics laws without a deeper sense of how to interpret them, he said.

"Just because it came from somewhere else doesn't make it model language," Davies said. "There are a lot of bad models out there."

Erie County's language, for instance, appears similar in many respects to the ethics laws that govern state and federal officials but not the ethics codes of other municipalities like Buffalo, Amherst or New York City.

"We struggle with this," said Davies, who referred to New York City's lengthy gift acceptance policies. "Every time we try to come up with something simple, somebody says, 'Well, what about this?' "

Though some call the proposed language muddy in places, proponents of the proposed law say the list of exceptions was meant to provide clarity, not confusion, in light of the county no longer allowing gifts of anything beyond "nominal" value. The old law permitted gifts of up to $75.

Comparatively, the ethics policies for Buffalo and Amherst allow gifts of up to $100 and $75, respectively, but have no detailed list of exceptions. All policies include language stating the employees and officials should not accept outside gifts that could be seen as influencing or rewarding them.

Other exceptions to the proposed county gift policy include:

  • Complimentary attendance, including food and drink, at charitable events;
  • Awards, plaques, memorabilia, honorary jerseys or other sports-related clothing and other ceremonial items given in recognition of public service;
  • Honorary degrees;
  • Promotional material having no substantial resale value, such as pens, mugs, calendars, hats and T-shirts bearing an organization's name, logo or message;
  • Gifts from a family member or member of the same household;
  • Food and drink valued at $15 or less.

That means under the revised county law, admission to charity-hosted gala events and ceremonial sports jerseys that might have an elected official's name on them would be allowed, Poloncarz said.

'More transparency'

Lorigo suggested a series of amendments to clarify some of the ambiguous language and make it clear that sporting events do not qualify as a "widely attended event."

Legislature Chairman Peter Savage said he does not object to the changes.

"I don't think we have ethical problems in Erie County," Lorigo said. "But I think we can always have more transparency. That was my main goal in updating the Code of Ethics – increasing transparency, not loopholes for gifts."

The ethics law revision addresses more than gifts. Both Poloncarz and Lorigo point out other provisions in the law exceed those of other governments. The revised county law would also:

  • Make it illegal to be a director or officer of any organization that receives county support for at least 10 percent of its expenses;
  • Require elected officials to disclose clients who have business before any county department;
  • Retain provisions making the law applicable to candidates for elected county office and political party leaders;
  • Require elected officials to separately disclose a list of all close relatives employed by any government organization.

Penalties for violating disclosure requirements also were increased to make it possible for violators to be fined up to $20,000 – up from $10,000 – or criminally charged with a Class A misdemeanor.

The revised ethics law would be a step forward in transparency, Lorigo said.

He proposed the measure requiring elected officials to disclose family members and other relatives working in government. He originally submitted a separate ethics law from the one submitted by Loughran, which was developed in consultation with Poloncarz. The resulting compromise law is what the Legislature is expected to vote on in two weeks.

Poloncarz said the new law will be clearer, stronger, more transparent and less reliant on judgment calls by the Board of Ethics. It also cleans up and consolidates a patchwork of other county ethics laws from prior years.

"The idea was to create a Code of Ethics that was easier to understand and would give more definitive answers to officials," Poloncarz said.

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