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Public employees can sell Girl Scout cookies, ethics commission rules

By Phil Kabler, Staff writer

The Ethics Commission on Thursday resolved an issue of universal concern: Can public employees solicit sales of Girl Scout cookies in the workplace?

In an advisory opinion issued Thursday, the commission’s answer was yes, so long as they don’t use public resources to promote the solicitation, and do not coerce co-workers into placing orders.

The request for an advisory opinion raised three scenarios regarding solicitations. The others involved taking up collections for financially distressed co-workers, and for selling commercial products, such as Avon cosmetics, in the workplace.

Commissioners ruled that both scenarios would not violate the state Ethics Act, which prohibits public officials and employees from soliciting gifts, except for charitable purposes.

Public employees can “pass the hat” for a co-worker, as long as the person soliciting does not personally benefit, as long as co-workers are not coerced to give, and as long as a boss does not solicit contributions from subordinates.

Commissioner Douglas Sutton suggested that agencies and offices should establish policy for solicitations for co-workers in financial need because of unforeseen medical, funeral, or other expenses.

“We shouldn’t define it, but we should tell them there should be a policy,” he said.

Commissioners concluded that while it is not an Ethics violation for co-workers to solicit contributions, it would be improper for an office or agency to have a financial distress fund for employees.

The advisory opinion also concludes it is not a violation for public employees to sell commercial products in the workplace, again, so long as they do not use public resources, do not solicit subordinates, and do not use coercion to make sales.

The opinion advises that any fliers or notices promoting items for sale should be posted in a non-public area of the public office or building, such as a lunchroom or employee break room.

Public agencies and offices may opt to prohibit employees from conducting any sales or commercial business in the workplace, the commission ruled.

The advisory opinion ruled the same standards apply for sales of Girl Scout cookies, or the solicitation of orders for any other products as fundraisers for charitable causes. Commissioners also concluded that, unlike the other scenarios, it is acceptable under the Ethics Act for bosses to solicit subordinates for such sales.

Also Thursday, the commission rejected a request from the Webster County Commission for an extension of a contract exemption allowing county Prosecuting Attorney Dwayne Vandevender to continue to lease office space to the county for the prosecutor’s office.

Investigators for the Ethics Commission determined there is other suitable office space available for lease in Webster Springs. The exemption can be granted only if there are no suitable alternatives, or if other leases would pose a financial hardship for the commission.

Commissioner Robert Wolfe said local newspapers have been critical of the county prosecutor essentially renting space to himself.

“That gives the commission kind of a black eye,” he said.

The current contract exemption expires on June 30.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazette.com

or 304-348-1220.


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