Advisory Opinion No. 2002-46

Re: Frances H. Migliaccio

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a New Shoreham Town Council candidate, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may continue to write articles for a local newspaper if she is elected to municipal office.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics would not prohibit the petitioner from writing articles for a local newspaper if she were elected to the New Shoreham Town Council.

The petitioner advises that she previously served on the New Shoreham Town Council from 1996 through 1998 and currently is seeking re-election. She states that she has been a local journalist for the past 14 years, writing articles for The Block Island Times, a local weekly newspaper. She informs that she writes freelance articles and, upon publication, is compensated based upon the number of words written. She represents that her work involves human-interest features and she does not write about political issues. She states that she also is paid by various businesses to write press releases for their special events. The press releases do not carry her by-line and are submitted to The Block Island Times, as well as other regional papers.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner 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). The petitioner 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 activity, to the official, a family member, a business associate, an employer, or any business which she represents. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Pursuant to R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(b), she may not accept other employment which would impair her independence of judgement or require her to disclose confidential information acquired in the course of her official duties. Section 5(c) of the Code prohibits her from disclosing, for pecuniary gain, confidential information acquired in the course of her official duties. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(c). Finally, she may not use her public position or confidential information received through her position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for herself, a family member, or business associate. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

Based upon the facts presented by the petitioner, her part-time employment by The Block Island Times does not involve political issues. As such, there is no evidence that her actions in writing human-interest features would either impair her independence of judgment or create an interest in substantial conflict with her public duties as a member of the New Shoreham Town Council. Sections 5(c) and 5(d) of the Code of Ethics strictly prohibit her from disclosing confidential information, such as Executive Session material, obtained during the discharge of her public office. She may not use any such confidential information to obtain a private advantage, in her capacity as a journalist or otherwise. In the event that a matter involving The Block Island Times appears before the Council, such as a public records request, the petitioner must recuse from participation and vote. Notice of recusal should be filed with the Ethics Commission and the New Shoreham Town Council in accordance with R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-6. Finally, the petitioner is advised to seek additional guidance from the Commission when specific matters involving businesses for which she writes press releases for compensation appear before the Town Council.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

2000-88
98-69
97-98
97-89

Keywords:

Candidate
Private employment