Monday, May 23, 2005

State office sideline busted

A crafts business run out of
a state agency brings a fine
and down-time questions

The State Ethics Commission has fined a state employee for making and selling crafts while on the job, a violation of ethics rules prohibiting civil servants from operating private businesses at the office, an official said.

The woman, who ran a business with her husband, made the crafts with fellow state workers in their office break room.

"When people are doing these things and are making money off it, we treat it as a business enterprise," Daniel Mollway, the commission's executive director, said Friday.

"How much money is involved doesn't make a lot of difference."

The commission refused to identify the woman, a 15-year employee of the state, or say what department she worked in. It only said she worked at a state agency.

Mollway said similar violations tapered off in the 1980s as awareness spread about the illegality of using state offices and equipment to run private businesses.

Even so, the commission still receives about one such complaint every six months, he said.

"As far as I know, this is still somewhat of a common problem. You have state employees who have an awful lot of down time who are basically sitting around large tables making things," Mollway said.

"One, they shouldn't be doing it. But it obviously means there is some problem with having work to do."

In general, such cases raise the issue of unfair competition, because an employee running a business out of a state office would effectively be receiving a state subsidy for rent and other costs.

The cases also raise concerns about employees being coerced into buying from sellers to protect their jobs, Mollway said.

The woman sold the crafts she made to fellow workers at her agency and used her office telephone to take orders for craft supplies, the commission said in an informal advisory opinion on the case posted on its Web site.

She also admitted to arranging for a retired state employee and fisherman to bring fish to her office. She would sell the fish to other employees and give the proceeds to the fisherman when he retrieved his cooler.

The woman generally admitted the charges against her and paid a $500 fine, according to the commission's monthly newsletter, "The High Road."

The publication's latest edition highlighted the investigation as part of its effort to raise awareness. A sketch of tape, scissors and other craft supplies, along with a drawing of a fishmonger holding up a fish, accompanied the article.

"It's another reminder, another way of hopefully getting this kind of thing stopped," Mollway said.

"The idea is to remind employees that they shouldn't be doing this."

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