No good deed goes unpunished
Generous teacher may have run afoul of state ethics laws on “Ellen DeGeneres Show”
Good deeds, they say, are their own rewards and a Dorchester charter school teacher may soon have to settle for that.
Nicole Bollerman, a third-grade teacher at UP Academy Dorchester, has received well-deserved praise from around the country since the Boston Globe put the spotlight on her just before Christmas for winning a $150,000 prize in an essay contest and then donating the money to her school, which educates some of the city’s poorest and neediest students.
Then Bollerman was flown out to California for a taping that was aired earlier this week of the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” where the host, who is well-known for showering Good Samaritans with gifts galore, presented her with a $25,000 check and, with a satellite feed coming from UP Academy with students and teachers in the gymnasium, gave out $500 gift cards for every teacher at her school and backpacks filled with school supplies for every student. All of the gifts were courtesy of Target, a DeGeneres show sponsor.
But there may be a hitch – nearly all of the cash gifts, except the students’ backpacks, potentially violate the state’s ethics laws, possibly even the $150,000 award that Bollerman won in the essay contest and gave to the school.
Scott Given, the founder and CEO of Up Education Network, which runs the Dorchester school and three other in-district charter schools in Boston, said in a statement he is satisfied the gifts comply with ethics laws.
“Nikki Bollerman is a remarkable woman and we are incredibly fortunate to have her and hundreds of teachers just as committed as she is in the UP Education Network,” Given, who is on paternity leave, said in an email. “When she first received word of her prize, her immediate thought was to give back to her students and school. UP was grateful to Nikki for her generous gift and felt it was based on who she is as a person, as an individual, rather than her role as a teacher, and was therefore appropriate. We have since reviewed the matter further and feel the donations are appropriate and reflect the exemptions allowed for acceptance of such donations. We are very proud of Nikki and believe she exhibited a level of selflessness that few of us could match.”
Given’s statement suggests the initial $150,000 award was given to Bollerman as an individual and not as a teacher, and that the subsequent gifts to her by DeGeneres were legal because they all stemmed from the original award. A 1982 ethics ruling buttresses that position. The ruling allowed a court employee to keep a $500 cash award he received from an essay contest on court management practices run by a national organization that sometimes did consulting work for the judiciary. The decision said the employee did not have the power to affect interactions between the organization and the court system.
The issue with Bollerman is similar to what happened last year when four Wellesley firefighters appeared on DeGeneres’ show and were given cruises in recognition of their efforts to rescue a dog that had fallen through thin ice. The firefighters – Capt. Jim Dennehy, Lt. Paul Delaney, Dave Papazian, and Joan Cullinan – were also given monogrammed life vests. There was even a vest for the dog, a golden retriever named Crosby.
Wellesley Fire Chief Richard DeLorie made the firefighters send back the cruise tickets when they returned from California so as not to run afoul of the ethics laws. The firefighters kept the vests because, with their names on them, it was determined their value was less than $50.
DeLorie said he and his labor counsel talked with officials at the Ethics Commission before the trip to California to make sure what was and wasn’t acceptable. DeLorie said his attorney, based on citations provided to him by the commission, concluded anything worth more than $50 could not be accepted because it would have been a gift given to them in their capacity as public employees.
There is an exemption in the ethics law for travel that is “in the public interest.” After determining the firefighters’ appearance on the show would benefit the department’s safety message about being careful on thin ice, DeLorie approved the trip to California and filled out a disclosure statement regarding the travel money.
DeLorie said he and his attorney asked the Ethics Commission if the cruise tickets could be donated to someone else, but the response they received suggested that was not an option if the tickets were donated first to the firefighters. That interpretation of the law, if correct, may present a problem for Bollerman as well.
David Giannotti, chief of the public education and communications division at the State Ethics Commission, said he could not address the Bollerman issue specifically. But he noted there are circumstances where a public employee can accept a prize worth more than $50. For example, he said, if a prize is given out as the result of a random drawing, such as a door prize at an industry symposium, the employee could keep it.
But if the prize is awarded on a subjective basis because someone is a public employee, Gianotti said, that could be a violation. He said something worth more than $50 could be donated directly to a public entity, but not to a public employee. “Where public employees have this restriction, public entities don’t,” he said.
There are some exemptions to the gift limit specifically for teachers, an acknowledgement that they often pay for classroom supplies and other items out of their own pockets. For instance, a teacher can receive up to $150 for supplies, but the donor must be anonymous. A teacher can also receive gift cards in any denomination to purchase class supplies, but the teacher has to keep receipts in case there is an inquiry.
The $25,000 check DeGeneres gave to Bollerman at the end of her appearance on the TV show raises the most flags under state ethics law. Bollerman, who was beaming and on the verge of tears during the show, told the Globe afterwards that she planned to use the money to pay for graduate courses to earn her Masters degree. But because the check was given to her directly, it’s unlikely she can keep it without running afoul of the ethics laws if it is determined that she received it because she is a teacher.
While all of the gifts from the DeGeneres show flowed from the award she received in the essay contest, the taping of the television show did incorporate camera shots of Bollerman’s school and her students, suggesting her role as a teacher played a role in those awards. The ethics laws state that “state supplies, facilities, or information not available to the general public” may not be used in the pursuit of an award or prize.DeLorie, the Wellesley fire chief, said he understands the need for ethics laws, but feels they sometimes need to be interpreted with “common sense and good judgment.” He said his firefighters – and, he suspects, Bollerman, too – could not have done anything to benefit DeGeneres or her show. “The rules are there for reasons and sometimes it’s not clear why,” he said.
Giannotti, again speaking in general terms and not about Bollerman, said the law is there for a reason. “Gifts can undermine public confidence in government. It creates an appearance problem,” he said.