Pope Francis gift raffle: An example to public officials?

While US politicians often receive presents from supporters and lobbyists, Pope Francis is selling some of his gifts to raise money for the poor. 

Andrew Medichini/AP
Pope Francis leaves after celebrating a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican to mark the Epiphany on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015. The pope will be raffling off gifts he has received in a bid to raise money for charity.

What do a camera, an espresso machine, and a four-wheel-drive Fiat Panda have in common? All three are gifts to the pope – and all are soon to become prizes in a raffle to be held Thursday to raise money for the poor, according to the Holy See.

The raffle, open to the public at $12.50 a ticket, will re-gift some of the hundreds of presents that Pope Francis receives from the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, while raising funds for charity. Typically, such gifts are quietly donated to missions or charities or put in storage. The decision has been praised as another example of the pope's devotion to the poor and his “do as I do, not as I say” form of leadership of the Catholic Church.

The issue of appropriately dealing with lavish gifts extends beyond church leaders to all heads of state and public officials.

“Gifts can be a minefield for elected leaders,” reports Jenna Johnson at The Washington Post.  

The Obamas receive many expensive gifts as they host world leaders. By law, the US president must turn them over to the National Archives or other institutions for storage or display. He can pay fair market value for those he wants to keep. The US State Department publishes an annual list of gifts received. 

Most US states have laws that limit, to varying degrees, the dollar value on gifts that officials can receive as donations. But plenty of politicians have come under fire for circumventing those laws. This week in New Jersey – which has one of the strictest state policies for banning gifts to public officials – governor Chris Christie has drawn public ire for accepting luxury box seats and airline tickets to NFL games from Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

“If these seats were given to him by the NFL or anyone else who is trying to influence his policies, that would constitute a gift and would clearly be in violation of his state’s ethics code,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the ethics group Public Citizen, told the International Business Times.

Another high-profile case is that of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, who were convicted of corruption last year after they were found to have received almost $180,000 in loans, vacations and luxury items. Their conviction led to reforms to Virginia state law. Missouri and Maryland have likewise stepped up efforts to curb the lavish presents that lobbyists and local business leaders give their government officials.

While some might be offended by the Pope Francis's re-gifting plan, most Americans would likely approve. A survey by American Express shows more than three in four Americans find re-gifting socially acceptable and consumers report re-gifting an average of four presents last year.

The pope is lauded by some pundits as an example for other leaders. He is both "a fearless reformer" and a man who puts his people first, said Jerry Krames, author of "Lead with Humility: 12 Leadership Lessons from Pope Francis." 

To be sure, this raffle is more about the message of compassion and pragmatism than as a significant fund-raising model. This Vatican gift sale won't feed many of the world's poor: Only 13 gifts will be raffled, as well as more than 30 unspecified "consolation prizes."

Still, polling numbers suggest it might not hurt elected officials to do as the pope does: The pontiff currently enjoys an approval rating of 60 percent worldwide and 88 percent among American Catholics – a far cry from the dwindling ratings of both President Obama and Congress.

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