Governor asks Alabama legislature to exempt teachers from state ethics law gift-giving restrictions

According to WFSA 12, Governor Bentley is asking the Alabama Legislature to amend the current ethics law relating to the ability of teachers to receive seasonal gifts. Under the current ethics law, a teacher is a public employee and could be regarded as breaking the law if he or she accepted a gift from a student or parent.

The law currently states that a teacher, public employee or public official can only accept a gift of “de minimus” — insignificant or moderate — value. The law does not designate a specific dollar amount, which has triggered confusion among gifters and giftees alike.

Senator Tom Whatley, Senator Cam Ward, Senator Gerald Dial, and Senator Slade Blackwell will co-sponsor a bill to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session that would further define how the law applies to teachers. “We agree with Governor Bentley and the need to make sure the law is clear so teachers, parents, and students understand that Christmas gifts, seasonal gifts, and classroom donations to teachers and their classrooms from students, parents, and grandparents are perfectly acceptable,” said Senator Tom Whatley.

Source WFSA 12, 12/14/11, By JoBeth Davis

[Editor's Note: In an advisory opinion issued in response to detailed questions submitted by the Alabama Association of School Boards, the Alabama Ethics Commission addressed the question of teachers accepting gifts. The Commission stated:

"The following list, while not all inclusive, sets out some types of gifts that are acceptable for school teachers to receive:

1) Fruit baskets, homemade cookies, etc.

2) Christmas ornaments of little intrinsic value

3) Coffee mugs filled with candy or of a holiday nature

4) Any item that the teacher may use to assist him/her in performing his or her functions

as a teacher, such as notebooks, school supplies, etc.

5) CDs or books of a nominal value, scarves, etc."

The Commission included a warning, however.  Noting that the law was passed in an attempt to curb abuses of influence, such as legislators receiving free tickets to the Iron Bowl, it emphasized that even gifts to public school teachers create the potential for abuse. (The law treats elected officials and public employees similarly.).  The Commission warned:

"While it is clearly understood that nothing may be given in an attempt to corruptly influence official action, there are subtle ways to attempt to influence official action. The suggestion that it is harmless for a school child to give a Christmas gift to their teacher ignores the potential for abuse. Suppose for example that a Junior High School child is struggling and hopes by giving a nice gift to the teacher, the teacher will reward them with a better grade. Or that the High School Senior who is attempting to get into a quality college, does the same thing. Finally, what of a college senior who is attempting to get into Harvard Law School? These examples illustrate the potential for abuse. What started off as a simple gift now may be attempting to corruptly influence official action.]

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