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Health department employee violates gift ban

Health department employee violates gift ban

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A state health department employee violated an executive order that bans accepting gifts when he received $840 in Utah Jazz tickets from a lobbyist, state officials said Thursday.

Paul Patrick, director of Emergency Medical Services, took the tickets for a game against the Phoenix Suns in January and the Detroit Pistons in February, according to lobbyist disclosure reports. They were given to him by Joseph Krella, a lobbyist for the Utah Hospitals and Health Systems Association.

Department of Health Spokesman Tom Hudachko said Patrick didn't realize Krella was a lobbyist and gave the eight tickets to two staff members.

"We feel really comfortable that was an innocent misunderstanding on his part," he said. "When the disclosure came out, he immediately offered to compensate the hospital association out of his own pocket. We feel that's an adequate resolution to the situation."

Messages left for Patrick and Krella were not immediately returned Thursday.

The Jazz tickets were among more than $60,000 in gifts and meals spent on public officials from January through March, disclosure reports show.

The ban on gifts only applies to executive branch employees. Lawmakers are free to accept anything they want -- and often did.

Jazz tickets, flashlights, umbrellas, T-shirts and plenty of expensive meals were among the gifts. Lawmakers were also treated to opera tickets, and Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble's son, who served as his intern, was given a $216 wedding gift from Target by one lobbyist.

Republicans who control the Legislature have always killed attempts to ban gifts, saying they aren't influenced by them and deserve the perks for all their hard work. Instead, legislative leaders say they favor public disclosure.

But lawmakers who get free meals only have to be identified if the lobbyist spends more than $50 per person.

Meals represent the vast majority of spending by lobbyists. Most have learned to spread the cost so legislators won't be identified.

Charles Evans, a lobbyist for nearly two dozen clients, spent more than $3,000 on meals during the first quarter without identifying any lawmakers.

Sometimes, lobbyists and companies used vague descriptions to describe what they spent money on such as "education" and "public relations." About a half-dozen personal care, nutrition and supplement products companies spent thousands of dollars on "public relations" on February 25. One of those companies, XanGo, spent $25 each on about five dozen lawmakers and the governor's office, lieutenant governor's office and the Department of Agriculture and Food.

When Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican, last year banned gifts for executive branch employees, he said public employees should be held to a higher standard when it comes to ethics.

His order says, in part, "confidence in government increases when state employees make decisions based upon the best interests of the public at large, without influence by those who may seek special favors and without regard to personal gain."

Huntsman's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said it's important that state employees understand the executive order will be enforced.

"We have spoken with the department heads to ensure their employees do know what the executive order does say," she said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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