Advisory Opinion No. 2021-30

Rhode Island Ethics Commission

Advisory Opinion No. 2021-30

Approved: April 27, 2021

Re: The Honorable Marcia Ranglin-Vassell

QUESTION PRESENTED:

The Petitioner, a legislator serving as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, a state elected position, who is also a teacher at the E-Cubed Academy, a municipal employment position, requests an advisory opinion regarding whether she is prohibited by the Code of Ethics from performing work in her private capacity as an independent contractor for Ranglin & Associates Consulting, a business owned by the Petitioner’s sister.

RESPONSE:

It is the opinion of the Ethics Commission that the Petitioner, a legislator serving as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, a state elected position, who is also a teacher at the E-Cubed Academy, a municipal employment position, is not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from performing work in her private capacity as an independent contractor for Ranglin & Associates Consulting, a business owned by the Petitioner’s sister.  However, the Petitioner must perform such work on her own time and without the use of public resources; may not use confidential information obtained as part of her official public duties in furtherance of her consulting work; and may not use either of her official positions to solicit business or clients. 

The Petitioner was elected to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in November of 2016 as a representative of District 5 and has served continuously in that capacity since.  She is a member of the Small Business Committee, the Education Committee, and the Environmental Committee.  The Petitioner is also employed by the City of Providence as a teacher at the E-Cubed Academy.  The Petitioner states that in 2012 her sister established Ranglin & Associates, LLC, d/b/a Ranglin & Associates Consulting (“R&A Consulting” or “the company”), a multi-disciplinary consulting firm owned by her sister which offers programs related to work force development, including business continuity and resilience management, career counseling, and diversity equity and inclusion training and support.  The Petitioner further states that she acted as a sounding board for her sister during the establishment of R&A Consulting, offering feedback on her sister’s ideas and plans for the company.  The Petitioner emphasizes that she does not have, nor has she ever had, an ownership interest in R&A Consulting.

The Petitioner states that she would like to perform work as an independent contractor for R&A Consulting and provide coaching services for clients of the company.  She further states that she would perform this work on her own time and without the use of public resources.  The Petitioner informs that the company, through its owner, intends to pursue contract work with the State of Rhode Island (“State”) by responding to requests for proposals which seek services of the nature provided by R&A Consulting.  The Petitioner represents that she would not perform independent contract work for R&A Consulting on any project awarded by the State without prior approval from the Ethics Commission.  Cognizant of the Code of Ethics, and committed to acting in conformance therewith, the Petitioner seeks guidance from the Ethics Commission regarding whether the Code of Ethics prohibits her from accepting independent contract work from R&A Consulting on municipal and other non-state projects.

No person subject to the Code of Ethics shall engage in any business, employment, transaction or professional activity which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her duties or employment in the public interest.  R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a).  A substantial conflict of interest exists if a public official has reason to believe or expect that she, any person within her family, her business associate, or her employer will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of her official activity.  Section 36-14-7(a).  The Code of Ethics further prohibits a public official from using her public office or confidential information received through her public office to obtain financial gain for herself, any person within her family, her business associate, or any business by which she is employed or which she represents.  Section 36-14-5(d).  The Code of Ethics also prohibits a public official from accepting other employment that would impair her independence of judgment as to her official duties or require or induce her to disclose confidential information acquired by her in the course of her official duties.  Section 36-14-5(b). 

Section 36-14-5(n) (“section 5(n)”) of the Code of Ethics and Commission Regulation 520-RICR-00-00-1.5.2 Prohibitions on State Employment (36-14-5007)  (“Regulation 1.5.2”) prohibit any state elected official from seeking or accepting work from the state as an employee, independent contractor or consultant, while serving in the General Assembly and for a period of one (1) year after leaving legislative office, unless such position was held at the time of the member's election.  For purposes of section 5(n) and Regulation 1.5.2, "employment" shall include service as an independent contractor or consultant to the state or any state agency, whether as an individual or a principal of an entity performing such service.  Commission Regulation 1.5.6 Revolving Door, “Employment” Defined (36-14-5017).          

Secondary Employment

In the past, the Ethics Commission has consistently opined that public officials and employees are not inherently prohibited by the Code of Ethics from holding employment that is secondary to their primary public employment or positions subject, however, to certain restrictions and provided that their private employment would neither impair their independence of judgment nor create an interest in substantial conflict with their public duties.  See, e.g., A.O. 2017-40 (opining that a Probation and Parole Supervisor for the Rhode Island Department of Corrections was not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from working in his private capacity as an adjunct professor at Rhode Island College, provided that all work and preparation for his classes was performed on his own time and without the use of public resources or confidential information obtained as part of his state employment).

The Ethics Commission examines several factors when considering potential conflicts regarding secondary employment.  These factors include, but are not limited to, the nexus between the official’s public duties and private employment; whether the employee completes such work outside her normal working hours and without the use of public resources; that the employee not appear before her own agency; that such work be conducted outside of the areas over which the public official has decision-making jurisdiction; and that the employee does not use her position to solicit business or customers.  See General Commission Advisory No. 2009-4. 

Here, based upon the Petitioner’s representations, there appears to be no evidence that her independent contract work for R&A Consulting would either impair the Petitioner’s independence of judgment as a State Representative or municipal employee or create an interest that is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her public duties.  Additionally, there appears to be no relationship between her public duties and her potential work as an independent contractor for R&A Consulting, nor would she represent R&A Consulting’s interests before the General Assembly or the City of Providence.  Accordingly, the Petitioner is not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from working as an independent contractor for R&A Consulting on municipal and other non-state projects, provided that she performs such work on her own time and without the use of public resources.  Further, the Petitioner is prohibited from using confidential information obtained as part of her official public duties in furtherance of her consulting work for R&A Consulting.  The Petitioner is advised that she may not use either of her official positions to solicit business or clients for R&A Consulting.

Prohibition on State Employment

The Code of Ethics contains several "revolving door" provisions that regulate the ability of public officials to be employed by, or contract with, government entities.  For example, section 5(n) and Regulation 1.5.2 prohibit any state elected official from seeking or accepting work from the state as an employee, independent contractor or consultant, while serving in the General Assembly and for a period of one (1) year after leaving legislative office, unless such position was held at the time of the member's election. 

The Ethics Commission has applied the Code's revolving door provisions to legislators in the past.  For example, in Advisory Opinion 2006-25, the Ethics Commission opined that a State Representative was prohibited by the Code of Ethics from providing insurance brokerage services to a quasi-public state agency.  The circumstances were such that the petitioner had been privately self-employed for a number of years as an insurance broker specializing in employee benefits.  He had recently been referred to a quasi-public state agency in Rhode Island that required insurance brokerage services.  If permitted to accept this client, the petitioner would have provided advice on a wide range of issues and acted as an intermediary between the client and various insurance companies to negotiate rates.  The petitioner represented that he would not be paid by the quasi-public agency, but instead by earning a commission from whatever insurance company was placed with the quasi-public agency.  In opining that the petitioner was prohibited from performing work as an insurance broker with the quasi-public state agency, the Ethics Commission stated that the petitioner's fee, paid from whatever source, would still have been the result of his relationship with a quasi-public state agency. 

Here, the Petitioner represents that she would not perform independent contract work for R&A Consulting on a project awarded by the State without prior approval from the Ethics Commission, adding that no such project exists at this time.  In the event that R&A Consulting is eventually awarded a contract by the State, depending upon the anticipated nature of the work and level of her involvement, the Petitioner may or may not be prohibited by the Code of Ethics from becoming involved.  Accordingly, the Petitioner is advised to seek further guidance from the Ethics Commission should the circumstances warrant.

Conclusion

In conclusion, based upon the Petitioner’s representations, a review of the applicable provisions of the Code of Ethics, and consistent with prior advisory opinions issued, it is the opinion of the Ethics Commission that the Petitioner is not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from working as an independent contractor for R&A Consulting on municipal and other non-state projects, provided that she performs such work on her own time and without the use of public resources; does not use confidential information obtained as part of her official public duties in furtherance of her consulting work; and does not use either of her official positions to solicit business or clients.  The Petitioner is advised to seek further guidance from the Ethics Commission in the event that R&A Consulting is awarded a state contract for which the Petitioner is desirous of performing work as a consultant.

This Advisory Opinion is strictly limited to the facts stated herein and relates only to the application of the Rhode Island Code of Ethics.  Under the Code of Ethics, advisory opinions are based on the representations made by, or on behalf of, a public official or employee and are not adversarial or investigative proceedings.  Finally, this Commission offers no opinion on the effect that any other statute, regulation, ordinance, constitutional provision, charter provision, or canon of professional ethics may have on this situation.   
 

Code Citations:                      
§ 36-14-5(a)   
§ 36-14-5(b)   
§ 36-14-5(d)   
§ 36-14-5(n)               
§ 36-14-7(a)   
520-RICR-00-00-1.5.2 Prohibition of State Employment (36-14-5007)      

520-RICR-00-00-1.5.6 Revolving Door, “Employment” Defined (36-14-5017)  
           
Related Advisory Opinions:                                                  
A.O. 2017-40 
A.O. 2006-25             
General Commission Advisory No. 2009-4              

Keywords:                 
Secondary Employment         
Revolving Door