Advisory Opinion No. 2000-52

Re: Department of Business Regulation

QUESTION PRESENTED

The legal counsel for the petitioners, employees of the Department of Business Regulation (DBR), requests an advisory opinion as to whether certain DBR staff may attend an educational seminar that would be provided free of charge by a DBR vendor and held at a facility owned by a business that is licensed by the DBR.

RESPONSE

If the seminar is held prior to the effective date of the amendments to the gift regulation, the Rhode Island Ethics Commission concludes that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the majority of Department of Business Regulation (DBR) staff members from attending an educational session provided by a DBR vendor. For the small number of DBR staffers who take part in making decisions about whether to contract with the vendor or who otherwise oversee and supervise a consulting contract between the vendor and the DBR the Code of Ethics prohibits their attendance at the proposed session unless the staffers individually, or the DBR, pay for the fair market value of the training session. In addition, the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the attendance at the continuing education session simply because of its location at a DBR licensee’s building. This conclusion is based on representation that the licensee regularly provides the facilities to other nonprofit and governmental entities and also since there is no residual benefit associated with attending the educational seminar at this particular location.

Commission Regulation 36-14-5009 provides that no person subject to the Code of Ethics shall accept a gift or other thing of economic value, including a meal, from an “interested person”. Here, an actuary of William M. Mercer, Inc., is under contract with the DBR. The actuary is an agent of William M. Mercer, Inc. and is an “interested person” as to those DBR employees who take part in making decisions about whether to contract with William M. Mercer, Inc. or who otherwise supervise the vendor’s compliance with that contract. Therefore, those particular members of the DBR staff may not accept anything of economic value from William M. Mercer, Inc. Therefore, those employees, if attending the session, must pay for its fair market value. DBR staff members who are not so situated may attend whether or not the session is provided free of charge since, as to them, the vendor is not an "interested person."

However, we reach a somewhat different conclusion as to the proposed use of Amica’s facilities. Under the gift regulation, Amica would be considered an “interested person” as to those DBR officials or employees who take part in making decisions that could financially impact Amica. However, the room that would be used for the training session routinely is made available to nonprofit and government groups and there is no evidence of any residual benefits to the employees by being in that location as opposed to another. See A.O. 99-17(concluding donation of space at home show to Building Officials Association was not a prohibited gift since the individual building officials would not derive any personal benefit from use of that space). Therefore, we conclude that providing the location for the seminar does not confer any economic benefit on the recipients so as to constitute a prohibited gift under the Code of Ethics.

We reach a different conclusion if the seminar is held after the effective date of the amendments of the gift regulation in July 2000. The amendments to the gift regulation allow public officials and employees to accept gifts (excluding cash and forgiveness of debts) from interested persons valued up to and including $150. However, R.I. Gen Laws § 36-14.1-2(b) provides that state procurement officials may not accept goods or services for his or her personal use for less than fair market value from a state vendor who has sold goods or services to the agency within the preceding 24 months or who has reason to know that the potential vendor will be submitting a bid or making a proposal within the succeeding 24 months. A state procurement official includes an employee who have the authority to make decisions concerning the purchasing of goods or services for a state agency or who has supervisory authority over such employee(s).

Therefore, under the amendment to the gift regulation and the statute relating to state procurement officials, only those employees who have authority to make decisions concerning the purchasing of services from this vendor or who supervise such persons are precluded from accepting the seminar from the vendor without either reimbursing the vendor for it or DBR paying for it. This is based on the assumption that the value of the seminar per person is $150 or less and that the individual employees have not received more than $450 from the vendor or its representatives this calendar year. We remind employees who accept gifts from interested persons that they are required to report gifts to the Ethics Commission by January 31, if the combined value of gifts from all interested persons reaches $100 or more in a calendar year. As such, it behooves the employee to keep records of such transactions, including (1) the date the gift or other thing of value was received; (2) a description of the gift or other thing of value; (3) the fair market value of the gift or other thing of value; (4) the name, address and employer of the interested person who provided the gift or other thing of value; and,(5) the name of any organization represented by the interested person or on whose behalf the interested person was acting in providing the gift or other thing of value.

Code Citations:

36-14-5009

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-80
99-17
98-170

Keywords:

Gifts