Advisory Opinion No. 97-54

Re: Thomas F. Ahern

QUESTION PRESENTED

Whether the appointment of Thomas F. Ahern by the Governor to the position of Administrator of the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers (PUC) would violate provisions of the Code of Ethics given that Mr. Ahern presently is employed as Director of Public Affairs at Nynex, an entity regulated by the PUC, his wife is employed at Nynex in a non-managerial position, and upon his retirement from Nynex to accept the position with the PUC he would retain certain financial connections with Nynex, including receiving a pension.

RESPONSE

The mere appointment of Mr. Ahern by the Governor to the position of Administrator or the PUC does not violate the Code of Ethics. While the PUC has regulatory jurisdiction over Nynex, with which Mr. Ahern has past, present and, likely, future financial connections, any potential conflicts between those connections and Mr. Ahern's proposed public position may be addressed on a case-by-case basis rather than by barring his appointment altogether. For example, clearly Mr. Ahern could participate in PUC matters involving the various industries other than telecommunications that are regulated by PUC. With respect to PUC matters that might impact the telecommunications industry generally and/or Nynex specifically, however, the nature of Mr. Ahern's financial connections with Nynex may require that he recuse from participation.

The prohibitions set out in the Code of Ethics, with some particular exceptions such as the revolving door provisions, address conduct by public officials and employees not their status. See, e.g., R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a), (b) and (d). Mr. Ahern, who would be moving from the private sector into the public employment sector, is not affected by revolving door considerations. Therefore, his status as Administrator of the PUC does not create a conflict of interest, but particular issues relating to the telecommunications industry or Nynex may. Whether and to what extent recusal or other remedial action by Mr. Ahern may be required, however, necessarily should be addressed on a case-by-case basis and Mr. Ahern and/or the Governor's Office on his behalf are encouraged to seek further advice and guidance from this Commission if and when such instances arise.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

96-99
96-5
92-11
77-1

Keywords:

family: private employer/ment
financial interest
private employment