Advisory Opinion No. 97-111

Re: Tricia Leddy


The Petitioner, Director of the Office of Managed Care, Department of Human Services, a state employee position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may accept an honorarium for participating in a seminar at the National Conference of State Legislators sponsored by the Forum for State Health Policy Leadership.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Petitioner, Director of the Office of Managed Care, Department of Human Services, a state employee position, may not accept an honorarium for participating in a seminar at the National Conference of State Legislators. This opinion is based on the nature of the Petitioner's public position as well as the seminar subject matter. Here, the Petitioner was speaking about a program that she administers in her capacity as a state employee. Since her participation in the seminar is directly related to her public position, she may not be compensated for it. We find that that the use of personal time or the place of the seminar does not necessarily make the activity personal rather than official.


1. Facts

The Petitioner is the Director of the Office of Managed Care, in the Division of Medical Services for the Department of Human Services. The Petitioner, in her official capacity, administers the State's Medicaid managed care program - RIte Care. The Petitioner represents that she is often asked to speak about how other states could create programs similar to RIte Care. Additionally, the Petitioner states that travel expenses for speaking engagements are routinely reimbursed by the organizations to which she speaks, but that she has not accepted honoraria for those engagements.

Recently, the Forum for State Health Policy Leadership asked the Petitioner to speak at the National Conference of State Legislators meeting in Philadelphia. The seminar was "State Options for Providing Children's Health Insurance" and was intended to highlight RIte Care as a successful state program. The Petitioner, who was on vacation at the time, participated in the seminar and has not yet accepted an offered honorarium of $300.

2. Analysis

The Code of Ethics provides that the Petitioner shall not have any interest, financial or otherwise, direct or indirect, or engage in any employment or transaction which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her duties in the public interest. A substantial conflict of interest occurs if the Petitioner has reason to believe or expect that she or any family member or business associate, or any business by which she is employed will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of her official activity. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 7(a). Also, the Petitioner is prohibited from improperly using her office for financial gain. R.I. Gen. Laws §36-14-5(d). Finally, R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(g) provides that the Petitioner cannot accept a gift, loan, or reward based on an understanding that her official action or judgment would be affected thereby.

We first note that a state vendor or regulated entity has not sponsored the event. Given that, Section 5(g) of the Code would not apply to this particular situation. Similarly, General Commission Advisory 13 regarding travel is not applicable (prohibiting direct acceptance of travel expenses for a vendor).

The Commission has previously opined about the acceptance of honoraria by public officials. In A.O. 88-40, the Commission concluded that the Chief Legal Counsel for the Department of Mental Health could receive an honorarium at a regional conference hosted by the Alzheimer's Disease Crisis Intervention Center based on his use of vacation time, that the honorarium would be paid only out of registration fees, and that he would be performing no official services for his Department at the conference. Additionally, the Commission concluded that a doctor with the Department of Health could accept an honorarium for speaking provided that the honorarium would be placed in a fund, which has as one of its purposes the promotion of public health education in the State of Rhode Island. The Commission also concluded that the doctor could accept honoraria from out-of-state health organizations provided he would not be called upon to exercise any of the powers of his office as Director of Health in connection with that out-of-state organization. See A.O. 86-54.

In related opinions, the Commission concluded that a Town Council member could not accept a country club membership since it was located within the Council's jurisdiction. See A.O. 93-72. Also, a member of the Board of Examiners of Electricians was advised that he could not teach mandatory continuing education courses and receive fees since it would constitute a substantial conflict of interest with his public duties and would result in a financial gain to himself. A.O. 96-47.

Here, the Petitioner was asked to speak at a seminar about the RIte Care program, a program that she administers as Director of Managed Care in the Department of Human Services. The Petitioner states that she was on vacation at the time the seminar was held. However, the fact that a public official was taking personal time at the time of a seminar does not automatically transform the activity into a personal one outside the Code of Ethics. The Petitioner was asked specifically to speak about the RIte Care program. Her public duties directly relate to that program. Her participation at the seminar, therefore, does not constitute an employment relationship independent of her public office. Since the seminar is directly related to her official duties, the law prohibits her from receiving an honorarium for it. The Code of Ethics requires that public officials and employees perform their responsibilities in the public interest at the level of compensation for which they were hired. Receiving additional compensation, guest speaker fees or honoraria for work directly related to one's position may be construed as using one's position for financial gain. See Section 5(d). The fact that the conference is outside of Rhode Island and that she was not actually "at work" that day does not indicate that the seminar is not work related. Accordingly, the advisory opinions referenced above will be overruled to the extent that they allowed the acceptance of honoraria for speaking engagements directly related to the public official's duties, notwithstanding the time and place considerations.

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Related Advisory Opinions: