Proposed ban on gifts for state employees draws fire

Friday, August 12th 2005, 1:17 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A proposed ethics rule that would prohibit state Merit System employees and their family members from accepting ``anything of value'' from lobbyists, vendors and others drew opposition Friday at a meeting of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission.

``We just think it's unnecessary,'' said Gary Jones, executive director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

Jones said state law already provides strong penalties for any state worker who performs official acts in return for things of value.

Lee Slater, Oklahoma City attorney, said it makes no sense to prohibit a state employee such as a clerk from having their lunch bought by someone when other influential ``unclassified'' employees, such as agency heads and other top officials, are not prohibited.

Slater said the rule, proposed by Lynn Howell of Common Cause Oklahoma, would make perhaps thousands of state employees and their family members ``unwitting violators'' of state ethics law.

Howell said other states have similar ethics rules and pointed to bribery scandals in recent years that involved state Health Department and the Oklahoma Tax Commission employees and officials.

Slater said those situations support his argument that the rule is not needed. ``People are in jail right now because the system worked,'' he said.

Ken Elliott, commission chairman, said there would be extensive public discussion of Howell's proposal at other meetings before the panel takes a vote on it.

John Raley, commission member from Ponca City, said he is considering sponsoring a rule similar to what Howell is proposing if it can be determined that there is a problem from state workers taking gifts.

Raley said acceptance of a cup of coffee or a slice of pizza should not cause someone to be fired, but a problem could exist if an employee who has discretion over applications, contracts or other matters often accepts concert tickets and other gifts from those doing business with the state.

He said it is possible that a morale problem could exist in some state offices where some employees accept favors and others do not.

``If it is a problem, the this commission has a constitutional duty to confront it,'' he said.