After Seth Williams, Philly Bar Association pushes ban on politician gifts

The exceptions would be gifts from family members and gifts of little value.

Seth With Nittany Lion.

Seth With Nittany Lion.

Seth Williams / Twitter

The recent troubles of Seth Williams got the Philadelphia Bar Association thinking about the need for reform. In case you forgot, Philly’s District Attorney belatedly disclosed $160K worth of gifts spanning five years last month. They ranged from a Florida vacation to a $45,000 roof.

The conclusion of the Bar Association wasn’t so much why did Williams wait so long to disclose those gifts but something larger: Why was he allowed to receive those gifts at all?

Thursday afternoon, the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Board decided it would begin advocating for the state legislature to forbid politicians from receiving substantial gifts from anyone but family members. Gifts from “friends,” like Williams’ $45,000 roof or anything above the equivalent of a cup of coffee, would not be allowed.    

Here’s how the board envisions the plan working: There are currently two bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature addressing gifts for elected officials, one in the House and one in the Senate. They arose shortly after Governor Tom Wolf banned his administration accepting gifts from anyone who does business or is associated with the state, spurring a discussion about the influence of gifts in Pennsylvania politics.

These bills grants exceptions. For one, cups of coffee, bottles of water and other so-called “de minimis” gifts are allowed. The other exception involves family and friends. The bill allows for politicians to receive gifts from them. That’s where the Bar Association wants a change. It decided the only exception should be for family.  

“What we’re doing is asking them to take out this loophole of gifts from friends,” said Gaetan Alfano, Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, on a conference call with board members.

That means no more roofs, no vacations, nothing of substantial value — unless a relative buys them for a politician. If a friend wants to buy dinner at a restaurant, the politician would have to split the check.

The Bar Association arrived at this decision after pondering the definition of a friend. Is a friend the person you’ve known since childhood? The person you meet at a bar?  

“How do you define it?” Alfano said. “You really can’t. That’s the problem.”

“Will there be some situations where somebody may say that’s too harsh or that’s ridiculous?” he continued. “Could be. But…I think I would run on the side of good governance and suggest this exception for friends not be carved out but eliminated.”

As it stands now, per state law, politicians can accept gifts from pretty much anyone. They must disclose gifts of food, lodging and travel worth more than $650 and any other type of gift worth more than $250.

Gift reform has proven difficult to pass, even without language forbidding gifts from friends. Wolf has called for a gift ban across all levels of government, but the Senate and House bills have been in the legislature since 2015. Neither has made it out of committee.   

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