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Massachusetts should stop public officials from taking `freebies'

IF all the free tickets to movies, plays, and sporting events bestowed on Bay State officials over the years were laid end to end, they would stretch from Beacon Hill to Boston Garden to the Theater District many times over. No doubt many of these gifts -- from owners or promoters of various entertainment operations -- find their way into a wastebasket or are returned to the donor with a ``no thank you'' note.

But the acceptance, and often solicitation, of blocks of tickets to shows and games does nobody proud.

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In fact this questionable practice may be a violation of Massachusetts' conflict-of-interest law, a measure designed to protect government -- state, county, and municipal -- from improper self-interest of public employees and elected officials.

Before blowing the whistle on public officials who see nothing wrong with taking free tickets, the State Ethics Commission has issued a vigorous ``be careful'' warning. Ideally, those to whom the message was directed will heed it, making sure the total value of the free admissions does not exceed the $50 ceiling for gifts from any individual or firm over whose activities the official may have some measure of control.

It should be noted that state lawmakers are currently considering imposing a state tax on all paid admissions to shows, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment -- something the promoters and operators want no part of.

Meanwhile, race tracks, and at least some of the commonwealth's professional sports teams, generously issue season passes and choice tickets to influential lawmakers and government administrators.

Having friends in high places is a particular asset to any business. And the entertainment ventures are certainly no exception. But clearly, legislators, city councilors, governmental agency heads, mayors, and even the governor are no more entitled than anyone else to special gifts.

Those public officials who think otherwise are at best naive. It is not who they are, but rather what they are, that inspires such handouts. Once they are out of office, the flow of gifts usually dries up.

Who pays for these ``freebies''? The unsuspecting non-VIPs, who buy their tickets at often inflated prices.

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Sometimes, however, the donated tickets come not from the entertainment promoters, but from from lobbyists or other representatives of special interests, who presumably pay full price for the tickets and use them as a means of building goodwill with certain government officials.

Under current state law a legislator or other public servant is within bounds if the total value of such gifts from the same source does not exceed $50 within any year. But as the ethics commission noted in its recent warning, a season ticket to the games of a professional sports team, for example, would have to be considered beyond the statutory limit.

In a flawed response to the commission's concern, lawmakers may be moving to raise the maximum value of gifts to public officials. That would be a mistake, and surely would not enhance the best interests of the state or the image of legislators.

A better course for all concerned might be to amend the conflict-of-interest statute to ban outright the contribution or acceptance of free tickets or season passes to any paid admissions event. Short of that, a disclosure statement should be required from both the donor and recipient, with stiff fines for violators.

Such measures would help the ethics commission do a more thorough job of spotting possible conflicts of interest.

Regardless of how honest and well intentioned lawmakers may be, their acceptance of gifts from those whose interests could be affected by their decisions certainly creates a wrong impression. Free tickets should not be a fringe benefit for anyone in public service. -- 30 --

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