April 5, 2010
No Gifts For Judges
The Massachusetts Judical Ethics Committee has opined that a judge may not accept a monetary award in recognition of community service, even if the award is donated to charity. The facts:
...the program from which you will receive the monetary award "is an awards program that provides recognition and direct financial support to individuals of creativity, vision and leadership who work in community service in a particular area. . . . [and that] celebrates the builders of the community; the social entrepreneurs who often go unrecognized, but who make a vital contribution to our quality of life." The program "provides an opportunity to identify and support the best practices of community service" and one of its goals "is to be a highly visible mechanism for public recognition of excellence in community service." To that end, "[p]ress coverage of the awards presentation is encouraged." "[A] not-for-profit organization offering philanthropic design and management services to individuals, foundations and corporations" administers the program. (Emphasis omitted).
Possible recipients of the grant are nominated "by a group of `spotters,' individuals representing diverse parts of the community. They serve for a two-year period. During that time, the spotters agree to identify individuals who, by virtue of their leadership and service qualify for this award. The spotters serve on a voluntary basis." To be eligible, "[n]ominees must be engaged in some form of community service. They may work for a government agency or a community organization, or they can be doing volunteer work." Nominees cannot be "individuals who hold public office." Once the spotters make their nominations, "[a] small selection committee reviews the nominations and makes the final selection. [The administering organization's] staff conducts a complete review and reference check on all finalists. Selecting a group of fellows [i.e., award recipients] that represents the diversity of the community is a prime consideration."
The program honors six individuals each year, and each of those six fellows "receives a grant of $10,000 each year for three years." The donor funding the program "wishes to remain anonymous." The funds the fellows receive "are absolutely unrestricted. The recipients may use them to stabilize their personal finances, to take time off for special projects or a sabbatical. Some might choose to go back to school or obtain some skills training. Others might choose to use the funds as social venture capital to seed new projects. Recipients will not be required to continue in their present work." Additionally, "[n]o reports will be required of recipients on their activities. Other than appearing at an initial presentation, they will not be required to work together or attend meetings. Fellows are invited to share their experiences and discuss their work over the course of the year, but participation is not mandatory."
The committee concluded that the award does not qualify as a scholarship or fellowship, but rather as a prohibited gift. (Mike Frisch)
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