An offer from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to provide discounted hockey tickets, a hat and McDonald's value meal to Luzerne County government employees prompted a debate about the definition of gifts during Monday's ethics commission meeting.
No gifts may be accepted, directly or indirectly, from people or businesses regulated and inspected by the county or with existing or potential county financial relationships, according to the council-adopted ethics code.
The administration requested an advisory opinion from the commission on the hockey offer, but commission members did not reach an agreement providing one.
Commission Solicitor Brian Bufalino said the arrangement could violate the ethics code because the hockey team has a contract with the authority overseeing the Mohegan Sun Arena, and county council members appoint authority board members.
Bufalino noted the ethics code is more stringent on the matter than the home rule charter, which says the ban on financial gain shall not be construed as prohibiting employees from accepting group discounts or other economic advantages offered to all.
A Penguins representative had told the county the offer was a standard group rate for companies and organizations accepted by more than 500 companies during the hockey season.
Because the word gift is not defined, it must include business calendars, desk blotters and pens periodically provided by county vendors, said county Controller Walter Griffith, who sits on the ethics commission that polices the code.
He also noted he had to decline an offer from the county's new financial software company to pay for his lunch during a day of business meetings, even though the company's contract was already approved.
Griffith said the county should follow the state's lead by setting a dollar limit on gifts that require disclosure.
The bottom line of the whole issue here is if in fact somebody gives us something, we should disclose that, not prohibit people from getting it, he said.
County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, also a commission member, said she doesn't believe employees and officials should be hesitant to attend holiday parties.
Griffith agreed, questioning who would determine the appropriate amount of reimbursement he should provide to the party host to ensure it wasn't considered a gift.
Committee Chairwoman Margaret Hogan, also a citizen member, said she does not believe lunches should be accepted from vendors, though unsolicited office products might be acceptable if companies also provide them to other customers. She said the county must be held to a high standard because of past corruption.
All the research shows that even very small things like tokens of appreciation do influence people's behavior, Hogan said.
Citizen commission member Vito Forlenza said the commission isn't required to act at this time because no ethics complaint involving gifts has been filed, though he suggested employees and officials act cautiously if they're in doubt.
Councilman Jim Bobeck has reminded his colleagues of the ban, which he describes as the no free lunch provision, when they were invited to a tax collectors dinner and a recent bank Christmas party. Several council members also donated temporary bus passes from the transportation authority to Ruth's Place homeless shelter.