Over the past two months, thousands of Marylanders have traveled to restaurants, tailgates, a parade, formal ceremonies and a host of other events to meet Gov.-elect Larry Hogan.
Some come clutching handwritten letters to the Republican, or packets of information about causes close to their hearts, or business cards they hope will land in Hogan’s Rolodex. There has also been an odd assortment of gifts — T-shirts, a tie printed with tiny Maryland crabs, chocolates and a heavy carved wooden fish from Jamaica that’s accompanied by a tuft of coral.
“I want him to put it in his office — it’s to remind him to go fishing,” said giver Jonathan Goff Jr., a Republican who lives in Harford County and tried, unsuccessfully, last year to unseat U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.).
Hogan’s staff members say they are assessing and cataloguing the cache of presents, making sure they properly follow state ethics laws so as not to get in trouble over an unsolicited lacrosse T-shirt or other keepsake.
Gifts can be a minefield for elected leaders. An extreme example was provided last year in Virginia, where former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen, were convicted in September of using the prestige of his office to receive $177,000 in loans, vacations and luxury goods from Richmond businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
The former governor is expected to be sentenced Tuesday.
In the wake of the high-profile scandal, Virginia lawmakers passed a $250 cap on most gifts from lobbyists or those doing business with the state.
Previously, all gifts were allowed as long as anything worth more than $50 was disclosed on an annual report.
An ethics panel created by McDonnell’s successor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), recently recommended that lawmakers extend the $250 cap to all gifts, except for trips that are cleared in advance. McAuliffe has vowed to not accept any gifts worth more than $100 and has been writing checks to reimburse gift-givers for anything over that amount.
Maryland’s rules on gifts are stricter and explained by the State Ethics Commission in a densely detailed seven-page memo.
The basics: Officials cannot solicit gifts. And they, generally, cannot accept most gifts from lobbyists or those doing business with the state, trying to do business with the state or regulated by the state. (One caveat: The commission has decided that it’s okay for some state officials to attend the weddings of lobbyists, and vice versa, and to give “reasonable” wedding presents.)
When it comes to unsolicited gifts from people who do not pose a potential conflict of interest, Maryland has no cap, although gifts worth more than $20 must be reported on an annual financial disclosure form.
These reports often provide an amusing window into the governor’s office.
Outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), for example, reported that in 2013 he received dozens of books, including titles personally sent from former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Madeleine Albright; three ties; coffee from the governor of Puerto Rico; and a holiday ornament from Texans for Rick Perry.
The commission’s memo on how to handle gifts encourages Maryland officials to ask for advice and guidance when evaluating a gift, noting that “refusing a gift is always appropriate under the Ethics Law, and may be the best way to handle a situation when questions arise about the acceptability of a gift.”
Hogan said the most treasured things he has received during his thank-you tour of the state are letters from Marylanders who say they voted for him.
“It’s just touching,” Hogan said. “I got several kind of long, handwritten notes from people that talked about how much it meant to them that we won. They felt a connection, I think, to our campaign.”
There have been thousands of such letters, some hand-delivered but most sent via e-mail or snail mail. Hogan said they are stacked all over his office.
His staff has been trying to keep up with the correspondence — forwarding urgent messages about current problems to the O’Malley administration and responding to others.
Hogan tries to read as many letters as he can and signs much of the return correspondence.
But when it comes to the most memorable gifts, the big wooden fish stands out.
“I’m not sure what that was about, but it was thoughtful,” Hogan said. “We’re trying to figure out what to do with that stuff.”