Iowa ethics board director backs gift reporting

DES MOINES – The head of Iowa’s state ethics board asked lawmakers Thursday to pass legislation increasing oversight of gifts some state employees receive from lobbyists and others.

Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, advocated requiring executive branch employees to report gifts worth more than $100 from lobbyists and others with an interest in government action.

State law sets limits on the gifts that public workers can accept – such as allowing travel reimbursement for a conference or a $3 lunch. But there is no requirement that employees report those gifts to the ethics board for review.

Tooker said the information would make the gift rule process more transparent to the public. If made law, the new rules would apply to employees in the governor’s office, state agencies and state boards, including the Iowa Board of Regents. The rules would not apply to the legislative branch.

“I haven’t seen any abuses here. But I think it would be helpful to the legislature and the public,” Tooker said.

Violations of state gift rules can result in fines of up to $2,000.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, chairman of the Senate state government committee, said he supported the bill and would recommend it for committee approval.

“To the extent that we can minimize gray areas we should because that’s good public policy,” Danielson said.

State gift policies received scrutiny in late 2011 when Iowa Education Department director Jason Glass was accused of violating state law by accepting a free trip to a conference in Rio de Janeiro. That complaint was later dismissed by the ethics board.

Tooker said the proposed changes weren’t prompted by that situation but by the questions that it generated.

“After we had that complaint, we started receiving more questions,” she said. “We thought maybe this deserves a little more sunshine.”