Advisory Opinion No. 2000-20

Re: Sharlene L. Damiani

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a prospective East Providence Board of Canvassers candidate, a municipal appointed position, who also is a Democratic City Committee member and Vice-Chair of the 4th Ward Democratic Committee, requests an advisory opinion as to whether, if appointed, she may 1) accept the position given that her spouse is a legislator serving as a state senator from East Providence; 2) remain on the Democratic City Committee; and 3) participate in her spouse’s re-election campaign.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner, a prospective East Providence Board of Canvassers candidate, a municipal appointed position, from serving as a Democratic City Committee member and/or participating in her spouse’s re-election campaign. The petitioner would be restricted, however, from participating as a member of the Board of Canvassers in matters in which she, a family member or a business associate had a financial interest. As a practical matter, those restrictions may require that she resign her positions with the Democratic City Committee and the 4th Ward Democratic Committee in order to be able to participate in most actions that fall within the jurisdiction of the Board of Canvassers.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official may not participate in any matter in which she has an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a) 36-14-7(a). An official will have an interest in substantial conflict with her official duties if she has a reason to believe or expect that a “direct monetary gain” or a “direct monetary loss” will accrue, by virtue of the public official's actions, to the official, a family member, a business associate, an employer, or any business which the public official represents. Further, the Code provides that she shall not solicit or accept gifts, loans, campaign contributions, or a promise of future employment based on any understanding that her official action or judgment would thereby be influenced. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(g).

The Code of Ethics does not bar members of the East Providence Board of Canvassers from belonging to political committees, or any other organization. The Code does impose restrictions on public officials, however, depending on the nature of their involvement in activities and organizations beyond their public duties. Provisions of the Code of Ethics prohibit public officials from acting to confer a financial benefit on themselves, family members or business associates. See, e.g., R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), (b), (c) and (d). While the primary incentive for seeking public office presumably is political, most offices carry with them some form of financial remuneration. Therefore, a successful candidate for election will receive, in most instances, a financial benefit.

As a member of the Board of Canvassers the petitioner would be in a position to make decisions that could impact an election. Clearly she could not participate in any such decision involving her spouse, a family member under the Code, and his election efforts. In addition, however, she would be prohibited from participating in any decisions involving candidates who received financial assistance from either The Democratic City Committee or the 4th Ward Democratic Committee. The petitioner advises that candidates endorsed by the respective committees assist with fund-raising efforts and benefit from those efforts as a result of decisions to endorse made by the committees. As such the petitioner and these endorsed candidates who receive financial assistance from the committees share a common financial objective, which means they are business associates for purposes of the Code of Ethics. The petitioner, therefore, would be prohibited from taking any action that could confer a financial benefit (e.g., the remuneration that comes from winning election to most offices) on this category of business associates, which may dramatically limit the actions she would be eligible to participate in should she accept the Board of Canvassers position and continue to serve on the two political committees.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(b)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-7(a)

Related Advisory Opinions:

2000-10
99-96
99-38
99-33
99-32
98-146
98-122
98-118
98-109
98-107
98-42
96-93
96-48
96-25
95-51
95-39
91-62
83-40
83-38
83-37

Keywords:

Business associate
Nepotism
Political activity