Advisory Opinion No. 2000-30

Re: John B. Affleck, Esq.

QUESTION PRESENTED

The legal counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) asks on behalf of staff of RIDOT, state appointed and employee positions, whether and/or under what conditions RIDOT staff may attend the reception given by an engineering firm that has business with RIDOT so as not to constitute a violation of the Code of Ethics.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioners, the Director and employees of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT), state appointed and employee positions, may attend a reception sponsored by an engineering firm that has business with RIDOT provided that those persons that take part in making decisions relative to awarding or oversight of any contracts or business with the engineering firm pay for his/her share of the fair market value of the event.

The Code of Ethics provides that no public official or employee a) may have an interest that is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his or her public duties, or b) may use in any improper way his or her public office to obtain financial gain, or c) may accept gifts or other items of value from an interested person if he/she has decision-making authority or participates in the making of decisions. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a),(d), Commission Regulation 5009.

The Commission has previously concluded that public officials and employees who have decision-making authority over interested persons may not accept gifts from them. See A.O. 98-121 (concluding State Senator may not accept complimentary tickets to a reception organized and funded by Bell Atlantic); A.O. 2000-2 (advising Newport Tree Warden that he may not accept payment of expenses associated with a presentation since he has discretion in carrying out his permit authority over Newport Electric which is the requisite decision-making authority to trigger the provisions of the gift regulation); A.O. 99-1 (finding that employees who had no role in awarding the contract to a vendor or who have no role in reviewing, monitoring or supervising the vendor after the contract has been awarded were not in a position to use their public positions improperly to obtain financial gain by accepting discounted service from the vendor); and A.O. 2000-7 (finding that the Director of RIDOT and member of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority and Rhode Island Public Transit Authority may accept an invitation to an open house for a law firm that is legal counsel to those entities provided that either he pays for the value of the event or the State determines that his attendance at the function is an integral part of his public duties with regard to the law firm and, therefore, pays for the value of the event from State funds).

GRA, Inc. is an “interested person” as defined in Regulation 5009 in that it has a direct financial interest in decisions that the Director and/or his staff may participate in the making of, as part of his/her official duties. Therefore, for those staff persons whom have such authority, (s)he may accept the invitation for the reception and either (s)he pays for his/her portion of the value of the event or the State determines that his/her attendance at the function is an integral part of his/her public duties and, therefore, pays for the value of the event from State funds. However, staff who do not participate in the making of decisions regarding the acceptance or oversight of any contracts with GRA or any other business involving GRA, Inc., may attend such event since Regulation 5009 would not apply to that situation.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-5009

Related Advisory Opinions:

2000-7
2000-2
99-1
98-121
98-100

Keywords:

Gifts