The four Wellesley firefighters who received Caribbean cruise tickets from Ellen DeGeneres this week for a dramatic dog rescue had to decline the trip because state ethics law prohibits them from accepting gifts worth $50 or more.
“It was a nice gesture on Ellen’s part, and the firefighters were surprised by that, but state statute is very clear, so we FedExed the vouchers back to the Ellen show,” said Wellesley Fire Chief Richard DeLorie.
DeGeneres gave Wellesley Fire Captain Jim Dennehy, Lieutenant Paul Delaney, Dave Papazian, and Joan Cullinan the cruise tickets this week after she feted them on her show for rescuing a golden retriever named Crosby from an icy Charles River last month.
The team of firefighters had to punch through patches of ice near the border of Dover and Wellesley on Dec. 22 to rescue Crosby, who chased a squirrel onto thin ice and accidentally fell into the river.
DeGeneres also bestowed monogrammed bedazzled orange life vests to the firefighters, including a doggie vest for Crosby.
DeLorie said the firefighters are allowed to keep the life vests, since they are considered a novelty item with no value other than sentimental.
“The Ellen show put their names on them and things like that, so there’s no real value to the life preservers,” he said.
State law prohibits officials from accepting gifts worth $50 or more because of something they have done in their official job capacity, including payment of travel expenses, which the cruise would probably have fallen under.
However, the department allowed the show to pay for their plane tickets to California for the show’s taping.
DeLorie, who is the appointed authority to decide on such matters in his department, said he had to pore over disclosure forms from his firefighters before agreeing that accepting the flights was legal.
He cited exemptions to the state ethics law, noting that it might be legal to accept a gift if it if a gift does not provide a conflict of interest and proves to advance public interest.
“In this case, these guys were flying out Sunday and coming home right after the taping on Monday night,” DeLorie said. “That’s not a pleasure trip; that’s to promote a good public service story. and that met the test, in my opinion, that it was for more public than private benefit.”
A spokeswoman at the State Ethics Commission declined to comment on the matter, citing confidentiality laws.
The fire chief said he was proud of his firefighters, but he also noted that he hoped others in the operation receive more credit, such as the dispatchers who coordinated Crosby’s location and police Lieutenant Scott Whittemore for taking and producing the video.
“They were the unsung heroes,” DeLorie said.
On the heels of the dangerous ice story, the Fire Department is working with public works officials to flood a basketball court by Wellesley High School on Friday afternoon, transforming it into a safe and free public ice skating option.
“This is part of our ‘stay off the ice’ campaign,” DeLorie said. “Kids go out on ponds, thinking they’re safe, but they’re not. We’d rather they use rinks that are around the community.”
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misidentified Scott Whittemore.