Moon Rock Story a Moral for the Ethics Commission

07/09/2010 05:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You may have seen the story in June about the "missing" moon rock that had been given to the State of Colorado by the federal government to celebrate the successful Apollo missions in the '70s. It turned out that when former Governor John Vanderhoof left office in 1975, he couldn't find anyone willing to store the rock, so he kept it in his Grand Junction office for years until reporters started asking about the whereabouts of the rock earlier this spring.

It's a fun little story, but there is actually an important lesson involved that the state's Independent Ethics Commission may want to consider as it develops its rules to enforce the state constitution's ban on most gifts to government employees. As the Grand Junction Sentinel reported, a plate on the plaque on which the moon rock was mounted says that the rock was presented "to the people of Colorado."

The Ethics Commission has been wrestling for some time with the question of when a gift is a gift to a covered employee under Amendment 41, and when a gift is really to the State of Colorado. A November 2008 position statement from the Ethics Commission listed five criteria to determine when a gift of travel expenses should be considered a "gift to the state" instead of an individual state employee - but whether the gift was intended to be given to the State, as opposed to a specific employee, was not one of them. Last week, an Ethics Commission advisory opinion refused to treat a proposed expense-paid overseas trip for a state employee as a "gift to the state," possibly signaling that the commission is ready to rethink the issue. If the commission revisits the issue, they could do worse than to ask whether the person giving the gift wanted a specific state employee to receive it, or whether it was intended to benefit the state as a whole and not any specific individual.

Of course, not every case will be as clear as the case of the moon rock in Governor Vanderhoof's office. But the question of whether a gift is truly given to the people of the state, as opposed to an individual official who may be improperly influenced, ought to be the focus of the Ethics Commission's concern.