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Official Memo Spells Out Strict Gift Ban : Orange County: Even a cup of coffee can get employees in trouble under the tough new ordinance, which takes effect June 24.

June 04, 1993|KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Even a shared six-pack on Super Bowl Sunday could pose problems for Orange County employees under a recently approved gift ban ordinance, widely regarded as the most stringent of its kind in the state, according to a new warning from the county's top attorney.

A plainly worded memo, circulated to about 1,650 county officials last week, asks employees to comply with the new gift ban when considering such everyday actions as asking a friend to cut their grass or deciding who brings the beer on Super Bowl Sunday.

"You will now have to be sensitive to situations which formerly were very innocent," says a portion of the memo titled 'A New Way of Doing Business.'

"You will have to be particularly sensitive to the wide variety of situations that can result in gifts, such as when you pour a cup of coffee at a business meeting, your neighbor offers to drive you to the airport or to cut your grass while on vacation."

Chief Deputy Auditor Chuck Hulse said: "My first reaction was, 'Oh, my gosh. I didn't know that every time I met with my neighbor that I would have to think about this.' It strikes me as kind of odd, but maybe it's because it's so thorough."

The seven-page document was prepared by County Counsel Terry C. Andrus' office and represents the first step in educating officials on the intricacies of the new law, which prohibits them from accepting gifts from those who do business with the county or are seeking government contracts. The ban takes effect June 24.

Other situations to analyze for potential gift-ban violations, according to the memo: * "Your secretary, who just finished a good book, gives it to you." * "Your co-worker, who just got two free tickets to the ball game, asks you to go with him or her." * "Your friend, who runs the hardware store, makes sure you get your new power saw 'at cost.' "

"When your neighbor brings a six-pack to watch the Super Bowl at your house, isn't it insulting to ask about any business he or she may have with the county?" the memo asks? "Well, maybe . . . but you'll probably be a lot more embarrassed if you don't ask, and inadvertently turn him or her into a criminal."

The new law was approved last month by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors in the wake of former Supervisor Don R. Roth's March 25 conviction on seven misdemeanor violations of state ethics laws. Roth accepted thousands of dollars in gifts, including home improvements, trips and golf outings from community members and then voted on their matters before the board.

With only limited exceptions, the ordinance bans all gifts from companies or individuals that have had business before the county in the last 12 months or have attempted to influence a county decision during that time. The law provides for criminal misdemeanor penalties for violations by public officials and those who present the gifts.

As adopted, the law will cover 1,650 county employees and members of government boards and commissions. Included will be the Orange County Board of Supervisors, members of the Orange County Planning Commission, the district attorney, county counsel, treasurer, chief administrative officer and employees who manage public investments.

Andrus said Thursday that the memo was composed without legalese, in a style that would impart a level of shock therapy to those who will be covered when the ordinance takes effect.

"It was written in that style to get people's attention to the real-life effects of this ordinance," Andrus said. "We are adopting an ordinance that is very significant. There are going to be changes."

Supervisor Thomas F. Riley, who voted for the law, said Thursday that he has read the memo "a number of times to make sure I wouldn't do something that was not my intent.

"The results of not obeying are serious," the supervisor said. "I feel pretty confident that it will be responded to in the manner in which it was intended."

County Treasurer Robert L. Citron said the counsel's memo literally defines the new law.

"When they did this ordinance, they probably overreacted, but they were trying to address a general perception of public officials," Citron said.

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