A little over a month ago, with one stunning act of generosity, Nicole Bollerman touched hearts all over Boston and beyond.
Bollerman is a third-grade teacher at UP Academy Dorchester. On a whim one November night, she had entered a contest for people who wanted to make something good happen for other people over the holiday season. At the urging of her twin sister — who had spotted the contest on Facebook — she dashed off a heartfelt essay about wanting her students to have books to take home over Christmas break.
She won a $150,000 prize in the #wishforothers contest and promptly announced she would donate her winnings to her school. Later, she appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show. Ellen showered the students with goodies, and also presented Bollerman with a $25,000 check.
Now, Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine has written a piece suggesting that nearly all of the gifts may violate state ethics laws, which prohibit public employees from accepting gifts for performing their official duties. Such employees have a $50 limit on gifts. He says he wishes Bollerman well, but he thought the deal raised questions worth addressing.
We’ll come back to the perverse idea that winning a prize you plan to donate to your needy students could possibly be wrong in any way. First we need to focus on the law itself — which in my view is not even close to being violated here.
Since I’m not a lawyer, I called Ben Clements. As chief legal counsel to Governor Deval Patrick, Clements in 2009 spearheaded a major toughening of the law in question. He knows it as well as anyone.
Clements said the central legal issue was whether Bollerman was working in her official capacity when she entered and won the contest. Two key facts: One, she did it on her own time; two, it was a contest open to anyone.
“From what I’ve read it doesn’t sound like the $150,000 prize was given to her for any official action or because of her official position as a schoolteacher,” Clements said.
The fact that she entered the contest, sponsored by Capital One, on her own time, and not as any part of her job, is crucial. “She entered a competition anyone could enter,” he continued. “They liked her story. The fact that part of her story is being a schoolteacher doesn’t make it a gift given for her official position. I certainly doubt it was to influence any official action or in the hope of getting anything in return.”
Clements maintained that the same would hold true for Bollerman’s gift from DeGeneres. He was more circumspect about the $500 Target gift cards given to all teachers in the school to purchase school supplies, which they often buy out of pocket. He said they would probably be legal if they were to be used for school supplies, but would be questionable if they could be used for anything the teachers wanted.
The CommonWealth piece compares Bollerman’s gift and some previous gifts, including a cruise, that DeGeneres attempted to give to four firefighters who rescued a dog that had fallen through thin ice. The Wellesley fire chief rejected the prizes, citing the same law.
But it’s a bad analogy. They were acting in their official capacity. Bollerman wasn’t. It’s not the same.
As a result of all this, Bollerman is no longer able to talk publicly about the best thing that’s ever happened to her. Her boss, Scott Given, reports that she remains upbeat, and is focusing on teaching. It doesn’t hurt that the support for her is practically unanimous.
Watching this wrongheaded episode unfold, I keep remembering visiting Bollerman’s class and witnessing her passion for her students. She did a beautiful thing, and no laws were harmed in the process. Far from being a violation, it exemplified what public service is about.