Advisory Opinion No. 2000-81

Re: Vincent J. LaFazia

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, the Director of the Johnston Department of Parks and Recreation, a municipal appointed official, requests an advisory opinion as to whether his daughter may apply for and accept part-time employment as an official for the Recreation Department’s youth soccer league.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the daughter of the Director of the Johnston Department of Parks and Recreation, a municipal appointed official, may apply for and accept part-time employment as an official for the Recreation Department’s youth soccer league, provided that 1) all applicants are accepted for part-time employment as officials; 2) the petitioner does not supervise or in any way participate in the supervision of his daughter; and 3) the petitioner’s daughter is not afforded any preferential treatment in terms of pay, assignment, or period of employment that is not provided to every other game official.

The petitioner advises that the Johnston Department of Parks and Recreation conducts a youth soccer league for children ages four through fifteen. Due to the league’s popularity, he indicates that it is difficult to find enough officials to serve at all games. The Recreation Department asks the Johnston High School boys and girls soccer teams if its members would be interested in serving as officials, and also obtains officials for its youth basketball league in a similar fashion. The petitioner represents that all interested team members will be accepted for part-time employment as officials. The students who serve are paid minimum wage, with the funds deriving from league fundraisers and registration fees. He indicates that the Recreation Supervisor oversees the officials, although he does formally approve all hirings. The petitioner further advises that his seventeen-year old daughter has been on the School’s soccer team since her freshman year and wishes to serve as an official.

The Code of Ethics provides that a public official may not have a substantial conflict of interest in performing his/her public duties. A substantial conflict of interest exists if the official or employee has reason to believe or expect that he or any family member will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of his official activity. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 7(a). Also, a public official or employee may not use his public position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself or any member of his immediate family. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

In General Commission Advisory (GCA) No. 1, the Commission applied and interpreted these provisions to specific nepotism concerns. In that opinion, the Commission recognized that the cited provisions would prohibit a public official or employee from participating in personnel decisions regarding another family member. Specifically, the Commission recognized in GCA No. 1 that, in addition to hiring decisions, the public official or employee would be prohibited from having any significant involvement in decisions concerning reappointment, promotion, or reclassification of a family member. This necessarily includes job performance evaluations since they play a role in job retention, promotion, and other job-related benefits of financial interest to the employee. Additionally, in GCA No. 1, the Commission found that, not only is the public official or employee prohibited from participating in personnel decisions affecting his family member, he is also prohibited from delegating this authority to a subordinate since "the official is in a position to choose and influence the person most likely to favor [his] family member."

In a series of advisory opinions since the issuance of GCA No. 1, the Commission has considered whether, in light of the relevant Code provisions and GCA 1, particular public officials or employees would be able to work for the same public agency or entity as other family members. The Commission has declined to adopt a blanket or absolute prohibition against one family member serving in a department or agency in which another family member has supervisory responsibilities. Rather, the Commission generally has taken the position that a public official or employee serving in a supervisory capacity will satisfy the requirements of the State’s Code of Ethics by recusing from participation in matters directly affecting his/her family member.

The Commission recently considered the employment of a public official’s family member in a municipal youth program. In Advisory Opinion 2000-42, the Commission held that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the Mayor of North Providence’s son from being hired for the City’s summer program, provided that 1) all applicants are accepted into the program; 2) the Mayor does not supervise or in any way participate in the supervision of the youths in the program; and 3) his son is not afforded any preferential treatment in terms of pay, assignment, or period of employment that is not provided to every other applicant in the program.

Here, the petitioner represents that all interested Johnston High School soccer team members will be accepted for part-time employment as youth league officials. Although the petitioner formally approves all employees hired by the Recreation Department, the Recreation Supervisor oversees the youth league officials in their employment. Therefore, we conclude that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner’s daughter from applying or working as an official for the youth soccer league, provided 1) all applicants are accepted into the program; 2) the petitioner does not supervise or in any way participate in the supervision of the students serving as league officials; and 3) the petitioner’s daughter is not afforded any preferential treatment in terms of pay, assignment, or period of employment that is not provided to every other applicant in the program.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-7(a)
36-14-5005

Related Advisory Opinions:

GCA 1
2000-42
99-47

Keywords:

Family: Public employment
Nepotism