Last updated: February 19. 2013 7:13PM - 317 Views

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BEWARE THE GIFT with strings attached.

In Northeastern Pennsylvania – where the giving of items to public officials traditionally has occurred for improper reasons, not purely a gesture of the holiday season – Luzerne County officials are debating this month what, if anything, they can accept. Dare they say yes to that party invitation? What about all those gift-wrapped goodies from individuals and businesses?

It's a refreshing conversation for this community, still haunted by Christmases past and dozens of public corruption arrests between 2009 and 2011. Remember, former county commissioner Greg Skrepenak served prison time not so long ago for pocketing things he shouldn't have. Kickbacks, bribes and all manner of inappropriate gratuities have greased the palms of certain other elected leaders in this corner of the state, making any seasonal gift-giving suspect.

All the research shows that even very small things like tokens of appreciation do influence people's behavior, said Margaret Hogan, chairwoman of Luzerne County's Accountability, Conduct and Ethics Commission.

Officeholders and government workers should stay high above this fray. If necessary, adopt personal codes of conduct more stringent than the written policies. Agree to accept only three things from the public: well-wishes, hearty thanks and perhaps modest plates of cookies or more healthful snacks (sans hidden wads of cash, free concert tickets or other complimentary things of a value greater than, say, 10 bucks).

Business fat cats, meanwhile, can do themselves and the community a favor by doling out presents only to people in their immediate families and to charitable organizations. Don't follow the lousy example of regional real estate developer Robert Mericle, a key figure in the county's 2009 juvenile justice scandal.

Mericle apparently fancied himself a personal Santa Claus to the area's power brokers, including then-Luzerne County Judge Mark A. Ciavarella Jr. He began giving his friend the judge travel certificates worth $5,000, writes William Ecenbarger in his newly released book Kids for Cash. But this became cumbersome and so Mericle decided to let Ciavarella decide where he wanted to travel, simply placing $5,000 cash in an envelope, which he tucked into a travel magazine.

Here's a rule of thumb for reform-minded leaders in and near Luzerne County: It's probably not a gift if it arrives in the form of crisp bills and carries expectations.

Agree to accept only three things from the public: well-wishes, hearty thanks and perhaps modest plates of cookies …

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