When a Louisiana librarian spent more than an hour helping an older patron with the computer one day, the woman wanted do something kind in return. So the next day she brought a bouquet of fresh flowers to the branch. But instead of thanking her, the librarian had to turn down the gift. The woman walked out with tears in her eyes and flowers still in her hands.
Why? Louisiana’s strict ethics laws prohibit government employees from receiving gifts like flowers or food. The laws are designed to protect employees from conflicts of interest or the appearance of them.
But for public servants who spend their days going out of their way to help people, the rule is nothing more than a “morale buster,” says Janice Butler, 60, director of the St. Tammany Parish Library in Covington, La.
During the holiday season, Butler went so far as to post signs indicating that library staff could not accept gifts. Nonetheless, patrons still brought them. One man left a plate of cookies and ran out of the building so they could not be returned to him.
“Our older patrons who come in as much for the companionship as the books, they want to do something nice for people who they see as friends,” Butler says. “It’s not a bribe.”
True or not, the law is clear, says Kathleen Allen, deputy general counsel for the Louisiana Board of Ethics. And violators of ethics laws are subject to civil penalties of up to $10,000.
Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says that it is unusual for a state’s ethics laws to apply to such a broad group of public servants. “In Louisiana, the reason really was to change the perception that they felt Louisiana had of being a state with corruption,” she says. Colorado is the only other state Kerns knows of with such strict gift rules.
Although the rules may be a little over the top for many people, Allen stands by them. “The law draws a line with respect to what’s acceptable and what’s not,” she says. “If there wasn’t that bright line, where would you draw the line?”
Michelle Diament is a freelance writer based in Memphis, Tenn.