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Editorial: Enough gifts. Public officials shouldn’t have tip jars.

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, right, receives a tour of the new Downtown Mental Health Center on Sept. 28, 2015.
(Los Angeles Times)

There are all kinds of ways to get people to give you presents. Throw yourself a birthday party, for example. Have a quinceañera. Have a bar mitzvah. Get married. Give birth. Get elected to office.

Wait — that last one doesn’t sound right. Why would people give presents to politicians? Do they maybe want something in return? Perish the thought.

Elected officials get salaries (and in Los Angeles County, benefits) that are sufficient to compensate them for doing their jobs. We do not expect them to work even harder in exchange for presents. Imagine having to give flowers or a bottle of wine to the desk clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles just to get her to call your number a little sooner. That wouldn’t be acceptable — so why is it acceptable for lawyers, vendors and employees to give gifts to the Los Angeles County district attorney?

Over the course of her four years in office, Jackie Lacey has accepted $10,000 in gifts, as reported in The Times on Sunday. There are rules and limits on such presents, and Lacey has abided by them, duly observing caps on the value of the things she accepted and filing public disclosures that identify the givers as well as the gifts, according to the story. In other words, she is not in the same position as former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who paid a hefty fine after failing to disclose that he took free tickets to sports and entertainment events.

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Lacey is hardly unique among elected officials in accepting gifts according to the rules. Still, things just don’t look right, even when the gifts are fully disclosed. An elected official’s office isn’t just another workplace, where an exchange of presents is often nothing more than an expression of collegiality. When the recipient is the boss, with power to select vendors and promote or hold back employees — or when those giving the gifts are vendors seeking public dollars, or defense lawyers hoping to have criminal charges dropped — presents look a lot less benign. They can undermine confidence in the office’s integrity, even if the gift-giver gets no special treatment.

Consider the DMV clerk. If she had a tip jar — and if someone who dropped a few bucks in it got called to the window right away — the next person in line would have to wonder whether he just got cheated. And whether he needs to pull something out of his wallet besides his driver’s license.

Public officials should not have tip jars. They should not accept gifts or expensive tokens of appreciation from vendors or employees — or anyone else they wouldn’t normally invite to an intimate birthday party.

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