Advisory Opinion No. 96-116

Re: William P. Sisco


The petitioner, Westerly Housing Authority Commissioner, a municipal appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether the Westerly Housing Authority may elect to use public funds, allotted to the Housing Authority for the purpose of running the organization, to purchase gifts for staff members and/or volunteers.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, Westerly Housing Authority Commissioner, a municipal appointed position is not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from purchasing gifts for staff with public funds. The Code of Ethics prohibits public officials and employees from using their public positions to obtain benefit for themselves, business associates or family members. In this instance the board members of the Westerly Housing Authority seek advice about actions that would confer a benefit, not on themselves, but on employees and/or volunteers who do work for the Housing Authority. The benefit would be in the form of gifts, purchased by the Housing Authority with public monies, given to the employees and/or volunteers. Because none of the gifts would go the the board members themselves, there is no direct prohibition in the Code of Ethics for the proposed action; nor, however, are there any provisions in the Code that specifically condone the use of public monies to confer private benefit on employees or volunteers in the form of gifts. (In addition, this does not mean that some other federal, state or municipal provision regulating or prohibiting the use of public funds to purchase gifts might not be implicated.)

While the board members are not prohibited by the Code of Ethics from taking the proposed action, the receipt of a gift from the Housing Authority by an employee and/or volunteer may, at some later date, place the employee or volunteer in a potential conflict situation; i.e., having received a benefit from board members of the Housing Authority, such may constitute an interest in substantial conflict with their public duties. See R. I. Gen. Laws 36-14-5(a).

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