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Ethics panel blocks cops' good-deed gift cards

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Police officers won't be able to give out restaurant gift cards as rewards for good deeds because the West Virginia Ethics Commission rejected the proposal Thursday, saying it would constitute an improper endorsement of the restaurant by the police force.

"How can you say it's not an endorsement? It's handing out the store's coupons," Commissioner Douglas Sutton said, speaking against the request. "It's a clever idea, and it has a nice feel to it . . . , but I just see red flags all over the field."

In the request for an advisory opinion, officials with a municipality said they had been approached by the operator of a local fast-food restaurant, who offered to provide free food coupons that officers could give out to people for good deeds or for following the law. As an example, they indicated that children wearing helmets while riding their bicycles would be likely recipients of the gift cards.

An initial draft opinion proposed approving the giveaway on the grounds that the public benefit outweighed any private gain for the restaurant, but several commissioners objected.

Commission Chairman Kemp Morton said it would be inconsistent to allow city officials to actively endorse a local restaurant when the Ethics Commission recently sanctioned state Auditor Glen Gainer for merely appearing in a promotional video for a credit card company that provides government purchasing cards.

Commissioner Jack Buckalew, a retired State Police superintendent, also objected to having police officers promote a local business.

"The police ought to be out controlling traffic and solving crimes, rather than handing out good deed tickets," he said.

Commissioner Terry Walker noted that the promotion could be profitable for the restaurant, since a trip to redeem a child's coupon for free fries or ice cream frequently would end up with the parent buying lunch or dinner for the entire family.

Commissioners rejected the request on a 4-3 vote. Commissioner Bob Wolfe was one who favored the promotion, noting, "You're trying to build a good relationship between your law enforcement agency and the public."

Also Thursday, the Ethics Commission:

• Ruled that a police department could not accept grants from a private foundation that would be set up by a local businessman for the sole purpose of supporting the city police. The proposed foundation would solicit contributions from local businesses to support police programs that include anti-drug abuse campaigns and programs for low-income youth.

Buckalew noted that past Ethics Commission rulings have barred police departments from soliciting grants from local businesses.

"I think this foundation is something they've come up with to circumvent our rulings," he said.

• Rejected a request from municipal officials for permission to solicit local restaurants for gift certificates to be presented as awards to recognize community volunteers.

"I don't believe public officials should be able to solicit restaurants," Walker said.

• Concluded that members of a Solid Waste Authority could not be held liable for actions of a fifth authority member who refuses to recuse himself from voting on matters in which he purportedly has a private business interest.

Commissioners noted that authority members have the option of filing an ethics complaint against the individual, and said minutes of past meetings could be introduced as evidence of the potential ethics violation.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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