Gift to lawmaker creates ethical quandary
SALEM — Ted Ferrioli, a Senate Republican leader in Oregon until he stepped down in January, was presented with a beautiful wool blanket by leaders of Indian tribes as a parting gift, throwing him into an ethical quandary.
The issue confronting Ferrioli, who represented a huge swath of eastern Oregon covering canyonlands, mountains and high desert with cowboys, loggers and Native Americans among his constituents, is detailed in an Oregon Government Ethics Commission report.
It's buried under a 129-page investigation of a case against former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in which his girlfriend was paid tens of thousands of dollars for work she allegedly leveraged when she was Oregon's first lady.
Struggling over what to do with a blanket with a price tag of $249 is small beans in comparison, but it shows how — as political scandals emerge with dismaying regularity in Washington and around the country — many public servants try to walk a fine line. And it illustrates the scope of issues the seven-member ethics commission — established in 1974 by a statewide referendum — and its staff are tasked with dealing with.
"We don't just do state employees, we do all levels of government in Oregon, so that's every city council, every special district out there, fire board, whatever," commission Executive Director Ron Bersin told The Associated Press during a break in a recent commission meeting.
Ferrioli left the state Senate at the turn of the year after being appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to a regional organization that develops and maintains a regional conservation and electric power plan and a program to protect fish and wildlife.
In recognition of bills he had sponsored on behalf of Indians, the board of directors of Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Reservation sent Ferrioli a plush wool Pendleton blanket with a Native-American-inspired design. Among the bills: One which prohibits individuals from possessing Native American artifacts looted from burials or archaeological sites, Ferrioli said. Another bill he sponsored recognized tribal police as Oregon law enforcement officers with all the accompanying rights and responsibilities.
But the blanket exceeded the $50 limit on gifts a public official can receive from someone during a calendar year, plunging Ferrioli into an ethical dilemma. As a former member of the Senate rules committee, he knows the rules better than most people, Bersin noted.
Two days after receiving the blanket, he emailed Bersin and other officials on Jan. 2, asking their advice on how to proceed, saying "receipt of this item puts me in a potentially awkward position."
Accepting it, he wrote, might violate ethics regulations, but returning it "might constitute an insult."
"As you know, the bestowing of gifts is a deeply rooted part of Native American Culture, in meaning, far greater than the material value of the item given," Ferrioli wrote.
He noted, though, that if he divided $29 by nine, the value of the gift, per giver, would be only $27.67. What, Ferrioli asked, should he do: Return the gift, accept it on a per-giver basis, accept it on behalf of a third party, or take some other action?
Bersin wrote back that if tribal funds bought the blanket, then there is just one giver and Ferrioli couldn't accept it if the tribes might have an economic interest in Ferrioli's decision-making as a public official. But if the nine members used their personal funds, he could keep it. Noting that returning the blanket could be problematic, Bersin suggested donating it.
Ferrioli decided to donate it to the Senate, where it will be hung on a wall in a room dedicated to historical items.
On Feb. 15, Ferrioli traveled back to the Capitol to receive accolades alongside another recently departed lawmaker on the Senate floor. Ferrioli has a concealed weapons permit and says he carried a pistol in the Capitol for more than 20 years, but this time he left it behind because a new law prohibits it. As senators spoke fondly of Ferrioli, the blanket was close by, ready to be formally handed over to Senate Secretary Lori Brocker.
After the speeches and back-slapping and handshakes as lawmakers ate cake and drank punch outside the Senate chamber, a man with an erect posture and hair streaming down his back walked up to Ferrioli and handed him a box.
In it was another Pendleton blanket. This one was from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Ferrioli graciously accepted it. But he isn't keeping this one either.
On advice of ethics commission, it will be retained permanently by the Senate, Ferrioli said.