Advisory Opinion No. 2008-3

Rhode Island Ethics Commission

Advisory Opinion No. 2008-3

Re:  Joseph M. Fernandez


The petitioner, Solicitor for the City of Providence, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion regarding his ability to campaign for statewide elected office while serving as Solicitor.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Solicitor for the City of Providence is not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from campaigning for election to the position of Attorney General of the State of Rhode Island, provided that he does not use public time or resources to assist his campaign.

The petitioner is the Solicitor for the City of Providence ("Providence"), having been appointed to the position by the Mayor of Providence in 2003.  The petitioner states that the Providence Solicitor's powers and duties are those set forth in Section 603 of Providence's Home Rule Charter, which include, among other things:

            (1)        To appoint a deputy and assistant city solicitors as authorized by the City Council;

            (2)        To act as chief legal advisor of and attorney for the City and all departments, boards, commissions, bureaus and officers in matters relating to their official powers and duties;

            (3)        To attend or designate a subordinate to attend all meetings of the City Council;

            (4)        To provide advice in writing, when so requested, to the City Council, the mayor, or any agency of City government;

            (5)        To prosecute or defend all suits or cases to which the City or an agency of the City may be a party;

            (6)        To prosecute all complaints brought by the police of the City that do not fall within the jurisdiction of the attorney general of the state;

            (7)        To draft executive orders, rules and regulations for the mayor or for any agency of the City;

            (8)        To prepare all leases, deeds, contracts, bonds and other instruments in writing in which the City is concerned and/or to endorse thereon the approval of the city solicitor of the form and correctness thereof;

            (9)        To perform such other legal duties as the City Council may by resolution or ordinance so require;

            (10)      To apply, when so instructed by the mayor or the City Council, in the name of the City to a court of competent jurisdiction for an injunction to restrain the misapplication of the funds of the city or the abuse of its corporate powers or the execution or performance of any contract that was made on behalf of the city in contravention of law or which was procured by fraud or corruption;

            (11)      To apply, when so instructed by the mayor or the City Council, or upon said city solicitor's own initiative, for suitable process to stop any activity prohibited by the Home Rule Charter, or to compel the performance of any officer or employee of the City who fails to perform any duty, discharge any responsibility, or make any disclosure required by the terms of the Home Rule Charter or by law.

The petitioner states that he recently filed a notice of organization with the Rhode Island Board of Elections indicating that he will run for Attorney General of the State of Rhode Island.  He asks whether campaigning for this position, while serving as the Solicitor for the City of Providence, creates a conflict of interest prohibited or regulated by the Code of Ethics.

A public official may not in any way use his public office or confidential information received through his office to obtain financial gain for himself, his family, a business associate or employer.  See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).  Similarly, the Code indicates that a public official will have an interest in substantial conflict with his official duties if he 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 the public official represents.  See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a).  Applying these provisions of the Code to the question presented, the petitioner is prohibited from taking any official action as Solicitor, or from using any of the City's resources in order to benefit his campaign. All campaign work must be performed on the petitioner's own time, and with his own personnel, supplies, and equipment.

Further, pursuant to Commission Regulation 5011, a public official may not solicit his subordinates to make political contributions or to purchase tickets or otherwise assist in campaign-related events.  See Commission Regulation 5011.  This section does not prohibit the petitioner from accepting valid contributions, purchases, or other offers of assistance, if initiated by the subordinate.  Nevertheless, the Code provides that a public official shall not solicit or accept gifts, loans or campaign contributions based on any understanding that his vote, official action, or judgment would thereby be influenced.  See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(g).

While all of these provisions of the Code of Ethics regulate potential interactions between the petitioner's duties as Solicitor and his campaign for public office, they do not bar such simultaneous endeavors.  Indeed, there is nothing in the Code of Ethics to prohibit a public official or employee from seeking election to other public office.  The Ethics Commission has previously considered similar issues.  In A.O. 2006-41, the Commission opined that a state employee working in the Office of the Governor could serve, on her own time, on the Governor's reelection committee.  In A.O. 98-109, the Commission determined that the Code of Ethics did not prohibit an Administrative Assistant to the Westerly Finance Director, a municipal employee position, from volunteering to assist a candidate in his campaign for State Representative for the 51st District in Westerly.  That opinion was based upon representations (1) that the campaign activity concerned the petitioner’s private conduct outside the scope of her public duties; (2) the petitioner did not hold a public position concerning elections; and (3) public resources and time would not be used in the pursuit of political activity.  See also A.O. 2002-35 (North Providence Town Solicitor may serve as treasurer of Mayor's reelection campaign committee); A.O. 2005-42 (Providence Municipal Court Judge may appear in his son's political advertisements in campaign for General Treasurer).

These prior advisory opinions illustrate that the Code of Ethics does not bar public officials from running for other office or from participating in political campaigns.  Consistent with these opinions, and provided that no public time or resources will be utilized by the petitioner in furtherance of his campaign, the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner from campaigning to become the Attorney General of the State of Rhode Island.

Finally, the petitioner is advised that this opinion only addresses the application of the Code of Ethics and does not address whether any other statutes, rulings, regulations, charters, ordinances or policies prohibit or regulate the represented activities.

Code Citations:





Commission Regulation 5011

Related Advisory Opinions:








Keywords :

Political activity