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Thompson event may have broken law
Ethics rules forbid such high-value gifts

It's been a tradition for the past three years.

State Sen. Antoine Thompson's staff solicits Buffalo restaurants for food to put on a St. Joseph's Day Table. This year's fare included sushi, pasta, pizza, chicken wings and a cake featuring Thompson's photo. Thompson's staff secured food donations from 20 restaurants.

But there may be a problem with the tradition.

It may violate state ethics laws that ban legislators and their staffs from soliciting or receiving gifts that have more than a nominal value.

That same law caused problems for Gov. David A. Paterson earlier this month, when the State Commission on Public Integrity ruled against him for soliciting free tickets from the New York Yankees for the first game of the World Series in October.

Mark Boyd, Thompson's chief of staff, said the solicitation of food for the St. Joseph's Table celebration last Friday at the Mahoney State Office Building did not violate the ethics law because constituents, along with members of the senator's staff and other state employees, attended the festivities.

"We were accepting on behalf of the community, as opposed to the senator directly. It's a community event," Boyd said.

"When we started in the [State] Senate, we read and understood the ethics rules, and we made sure we're following them," he added.

However, the applicable section of the Public Officers Law does not grant exemptions for donations that benefit constituents.

Rather, it states that a wide range of public officials, including members of the State Legislature and their staffs, can't "solicit, accept or receive any gift having more than a nominal value, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, lodging, meals, refreshments, entertainment, discount, forbearance or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it could reasonably be inferred that the gift was intended to influence him, or could reasonably be expected to influence him, in the performance of his official duties or was intended as a reward for any official action on his part."

Any violation would be investigated by Legislative Ethics Commission, which can initiate action or respond to a written complaint. A violation carries a civil fine of up to $40,000, plus the value of the goods or services received.

The applicable section of the Public Officers Law was amended in 2007, and the commission has not ruled against a member of the Legislature since then.

Lisa Reid, executive director of the Legislative Ethics Commission, declined to comment.

Paterson's case involving Yankees tickets was handled by the Commission on Public Integrity, the focus of which is on the executive, rather than legislative, branch of state government."

Thompson advertised the event in a news release that was posted on his State Senate Web site on March 3.

"Everyone is invited to attend to celebrate Saint Joseph's Day and talk with Senator Thompson," the release said.

A flier advertising the event listed donors, including Chef's, LaMarina, Stillwater, Snooty Fox, Anchor Bar and Ilio DiPaolo's. Boyd said Tempo provided the cake that featured Thompson's picture.

An estimated 50 people attended the event, including community members and members of Thompson's staff and other state employees who work in the Mahoney Building on Court Street.

Thompson frequently hosts events that feature food -- such as picnics and breakfasts -- which he often publicizes with invitations sent at taxpayer cost. It is unclear whether the senator's office solicits businesses to provide food for those events.

e-mail: jheaney@buffnews.com

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