John Liu's “Zero Tolerance” For Gifts

John Liu, the city’s new comptroller, has instituted a “Zero Gifts” policy for his staff.

It means they can’t take so much as a cup of coffee or a bagel from anyone with whom they are dealing.

Liu has sent out a memorandum to his staff forbidding the taking of any gifts, of any value. “I think,” he told me,  "that such an action is necessary to help stamp out the pay-to-play culture that has plagued so much of government.”

In recent years, the aroma of scandal has filled the air, both at City Hall and in Albany. Lobbyists have established close relationships with people in a position to help them in their quest for deals that benefit their clients.

John Liu should be congratulated for setting a tone. His clearly enunciated rule limits access in a world full of loopholes. t. Under a law enacted in 2007 a lobbyist can only give a gift of “nominal value” to a city employee.

What that means is open to interpretation -- so it’s not as strict as the Liu doctrine. On a state leve also, gifts are restricted to those of “nominal value.”

But it’s in the area of campaign contributions that the city law exacts a much higher standard. People are only permitted to contribute $400 to a candidate for mayor or other citywide office. The campaign limit for a Council member is $250. Yet in Albany the ethics are far looser. A lobbyist can contribute close to $100.000 to a favorite candidate. That may seem like pocket change -- but in Albany they make it add up.

The pay-to-play culture is alive and well there. Ethics is just a six-letter word that apparently has no meaning to the powers that be.

Dick Dadey -- the executive director of the Citizens Union, a reform organization that battled the corruption of  Tammany Hall in the 1890s -- said Liu’s zero tolerance policy for gifts is a good move.

He told me: “We have to be vigilant against those who would try to find new ways to evade ethics rules.”

Dadey is right. Zero tolerance has to be the watchword for the reformers who man the ramparts -- in the never-ending battle against corruption.

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