By Torey Van Oot
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

The state political watchdog agency is set to consider next month adopting substantial changes to rules governing gifts to public officials and staff, including exemptions from disclosure for presents received from former spouses, dating partners and longtime friends.

The proposed regulations drafted by Fair Political Practices Commission staffers affect what must be disclosed and count toward the $420 annual cap on gifts from an individual source. Registered lobbyists, who are prohibited from giving gifts worth more than $10, and firms or interests that hire lobbyists would not qualify for the exemptions.

In addition to establishing relationship categories to exempt, the proposed amendments would let lawmakers receive without public scrutiny gifts considered “acts of neighborliness” and “acts of human compassion” and update language related to bereavement, birthdays and weddings.

Tickets or event admission received in connection with a “ceremonial role,” such as throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game, would not be considered a gift.

FPPC Chair Ann Ravel said the changes are simply meant to clarify the rules and put into regulation current enforcement practices, saying most of the language comes from advice letters generated by the agency.

“The real problem is it’s as if there are underground regulations that some people know about, that is political attorneys … but other people, such as local officials that have to comply,” don’t, she said.

Ravel said the proposed regulations strive to strike a “balance of the privacy interests vs. where the public needs to know for the purpose of determining whether there is a conflict” when it comes to mandating disclosure.

“There has to be a nexus,” she said. “I think that in some of the cases, that nexus can’t be shown if it’s just total absolute disclosure over every single possible relationship and interest you have.”

One good-government group responded to the regulations by saying while clarifying rules already in place is a worthy goal, FPPC officials must be mindful of any changes that would give interest groups more opportunities to exert influence over officials.

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