$50 versus $200 gifts


Three months ago, Rep. Joseph “Leepan” T. Guerrero (R-Saipan) introduced a bill that would increase from $50 to $200 the value of nonmonetary gifts that CNMI government officials and employees—not only lawmakers—may accept. Guerrero’s House Bill 19-84, in its current form, should either die a natural death in the Committee on Judiciary and Governmental Operations or rejected by the full House in the event the committee recommends its passage.

At the very least, the bill should be improved upon if it were to clear the committee.

Guerrero’s proposed cap increase takes into consideration inflation or the change in prices of goods and commodities since the CNMI Ethics Code Act was enacted on Jan. 22, 1993.

That’s assuming that the gift offered and accepted won’t influence a government official or employee in the performance of his duties.

Granted, that prices of consumer items have dramatically changed in the last 22 years. But how did Guerrero, in introducing HB 19-84, arrive at the proposed $200 limit? Was this based on actual consumer price index reports that the Department of Commerce prepares? Or was the amount randomly selected? Has the JGO Committee, which is tasked to review the bill, consulted or asked for input from Commerce?

In other U.S. states, the limit on the value of nonmonetary gifts that state lawmakers and other officials may accept are adjusted by an amount based on actual price consumer index reports.

In Colorado, for example, the $50 limit on the value of acceptable gifts is adjusted “by an amount based upon the percentage change over a four-year period in the United States bureau of labor statistics consumer price index.” The first adjustment was done in the first quarter of 2011 and then every four years thereafter. As of 2011, the limit in Colorado is $53, based on the consumer price index.

Again, in other state legislatures, they put a limit on the total amount that may be accepted as gift “in a calendar year.” For example, a state lawmaker cannot accept a gift or anything of value having either a fair market value or aggregate actual cost greater than, say $50, or $200, “in any calendar year.”

The CNMI law does not specify whether a lawmaker, for example, may accept a $50 gift today and may accept another $50 meal or gift the following day from the same business person or different business people.

A clarification or amendment to the CNMI Ethics Code Act to put a limit on the allowable value of gifts or anything of value “within a calendar year” would be more responsible and thoughtful than just focusing on whether the limit should be $50 or $200.

Otherwise, a lawmaker can interpret it as “okay” to accept a $50 gift or a $50 meal “every time” the same business person invites him and still believe he’s not violating the ethics law.

Has the JGO Committee consulted with, or asked input from, the Office of the Public Auditor on Guerrero’s bill? This bill should not move forward without taking into consideration OPA’s comments and recommendations.

Guerrero, in his HB 19-84, is concerned that “prominent business people and dignitaries from the United States and other foreign countries have invited our legislators to enjoy meal and beverage accommodations on several occasions” wherein these businesspeople and dignitaries “tend to offer gifts and pay for meals” that exceed the current $50 cap.

To begin with, a $50 meal is already costly. A $200 meal is definitely a steaks-and-lobsters meal and much more. And if a $50 gift or meal makes a lawmaker or any government official uncomfortable or question his ethics, then good. Imagine what a $200 meal can do?

“If you are offered a gift and have any doubt about whether you should accept it, you should consult with the Public Auditor,” OPA said in its intended guide to the CNMI Ethics Code Act.

As a general rule, as pointed out by the Office of the Public Auditor, acceptance of a gift by a public official or public employee from persons, other than from a spouse, children or specified other relatives, “is unethical and not allowed.”

The reason is that in serving the public interest, both public officials and public employees are expected to be free from the influence of private or business interests.

But then again, there are exemptions such as if the gift or anything of value is estimated at $50 or less, and shouldn’t influence a public servant’s decision or conduct.

Exempted from the prohibition are informational materials such as books, reports and calendars, a personalized plaque or trophy with a value not exceeding $500, a reportable campaign contribution, or something received that is not used “but within 30 days is either returned to the donor or delivered to a charitable organization, and is not claimed as a charitable contribution for tax purposes.”

A gift may also be accepted on behalf of the CNMI by any official or employee, or their spouse or minor child, provided they report it to the Office of the Public Auditor and Finance, which will add it to the inventory of CNMI property. Whether OPA received any such report from anyone in the government is a guessing game at this time.

When then acting governor Benjamin T. Manglona signed the Ethics Code Act in 1993, he acknowledged that the measure needs to be further reviewed and amended to, among other things, include stricter standards and that “it should be worded, as much as possible, in simple, clear language, to be easily understood by all.” Despite having a problematic bill before him, the acting governor said signing such bill into law “is still a great step toward a more responsible government.”

Clarifying and strengthening the Ethics Code Act’s provisions is long overdue. But any such responsible and meaningful amendments to make the law better takes a lot more than just raising the gift value limit of $50 because of inflation. For example, making the statement of financial interests of elected and appointed government officials filed with OPA every year be made readily available for public inspection. (Haideee V. Eugenio)

Haidee V. Eugenio

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