By Torey Van Oot |
tvanoot@sacbee.com
Published: Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

The gift-giving season is always tricky for California legislators and other public officials, who must disclose the goodies they get to comply with the state’s Political Reform Act.

Now the state Fair Political Practices Commission is trying to rewrite the rules.

The revised regulations, which could receive final approval in coming weeks, include changes sparked by real-life situations that commission staff say have created cumbersome, confusing or unnecessary reporting requirements.

“The objective,” staff wrote in a memo, “is to fix what’s broke without breaking what’s fixed.”

Still, some of the proposed exceptions in the rules have been criticized by good-government advocates who say it’s better to err on the side of disclosure.

Here are a few of the situations the commission is tackling:

DATING RELATIONSHIPS

A legislator and a lobbyist go on a date. Should the lawmaker have to report the dinner tab if the lobbyist paid? What about the cost of a weekend getaway or anniversary gift exchanged in an ongoing relationship?

Rule: While gifts from spouses and other family members are already exempt from disclosure rules, situations involving boyfriends and girlfriends are not addressed. Staff has considered situations on a case-by-case basis, ultimately deeming the “gift” exempt in most cases.

Proposal: Gifts exchanged in a “dating relationship,” even a first and only date, would not count toward limits or require disclosure. But if the annual gifts exchanged exceed more than $420 in value, the official must recuse him or herself from actions on the job that would benefit his or her significant other.

FLYING FREE

A state constitutional officer accepts a lift on a chartered jet to travel from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., for a series of meetings.

Rule: The value of the gift to be reported could be considered the entire cost of chartering the flight if the recipient is the only “official” on board.

Proposal: The value of the flight would be either the cost of the charter divided by the number of people on board (as opposed to the number of lawmakers or other officials) or the price of a first-class ticket for a comparable trip. While some types of travel, such as trips to give a speech and those paid for by nonprofits, are not subject to gift limits, the official would have to pay the difference for flights in other cases worth more than $420.

WEDDING BELLS

A lobbyist invites a legislator to his or her wedding, but the value of the wedding cake and a glass of champagne for the toast alone exceeds the $10 limit for gifts the legislator can accept from the newlywed. Can the legislator attend the wedding reception and accept the food served?

Rule: Technically, the lawmaker would not be able to accept any food at the reception.

Proposal: Legislators and staff could attend weddings as a guest without reporting food, drink or other costs associated with the event. “Staff believes that guests are invited to weddings for reasons other than to be influenced,” a staff memo on the change reads.

GOLF BUDDIES

A legislator’s chief of staff is invited by an old college buddy to play a round of golf at the friend’s exclusive country club. The friend pays for the greens fees and the cart rental. Should the chief of staff report the gift?

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