Advisory Opinion No. 98-115

Re: Louis J. Saccoccio, Esq.


The Petitioner, the General Counsel for the University of Rhode Island (URI) requests an advisory opinion on behalf of the University and certain employees of its Athletic Department, all state employee positions, as to whether URI may hire and/or employ the son of the present head coach of the URI men's basketball program as an assistant men's basketball coach provided that the head coach does not participate in the hiring process and, if his son is hired, the Athletic Director for URI, the head coach's supervisor, assumes all supervisory responsibilities as to the son.


It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the University of Rhode Island (URI) from hiring and employing the son of the head basketball coach as an assistant men’s basketball coach. URI proposes a hiring process for the position that will include no involvement or participation by the present head coach. The University further advises that if the coach’s son is hired for the position, URI’s Athletic Director will assume all supervisory responsibilities as to the new assistant coach. While the Code of Ethics prohibits public officials and employees from participating in particular employment matters involving their family members, in this instance the hiring and supervisory procedures fashioned by the University effectively insulate the head coach from public employment decisions directly affecting his son.


1. Facts

URI has requested applications to fill two assistant coach positions in the men's basketball program. The positions have been advertised in accordance with the University's standard hiring procedures and will be monitored by both the University's Human Resources Administration and its Affirmative Action Office. Upon receipt the applications will be reviewed and evaluated by a search committee composed of Athletic Director Ronald Petro, Associate Athletic Director for the Men's Programs, John Vanner, and the Associate Athletic Director of Business and Finance, Kristin Burns. After consideration of the applications, the search committee will recommend a candidate to the University's President for final approval. Although the original job posting directed applicants to send all related information to Coach Harrick, he is not a member of the search committee.

Coach Harrick's son, James Harrick, Jr., plans to apply for one of the two advertised assistant coach positions, a position that generally involves a one-year contract that may be renewed for additional one year terms by agreement between the interested coach and the university. At the University, the Athletic Director has the primary supervisory and decision-making authority over the head coaches of all athletic programs and is the administrator responsible for making the final decisions or recommendations that affect the terms and conditions of employment of all personnel in the Athletic Department. Although the head coach normally has general supervisory responsibility over his assistant coaches, the Petitioner advises that, if James Harrick, Jr. is a successful candidate hired by the University, Coach Harrick will not take part or exercise any influence in personnel decisions or actions affecting his son. The Athletic Director, Coach Harrick's supervisor, will assume all supervisory authority over James Harrick, Jr

Finally, both the head coach and assistant coach positions are state employee positions that fall within the purview of the State’s Code of Ethics.

2. Analysis

The Code of Ethics provides that a public official or employee 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 his or her duties in the public interest. A substantial conflict of interest exists if the official or employee has reason to believe or expect that he or any family member will derive a direct monetary gain or suffer a direct monetary loss by reason of his official activity. R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 7(a). Also, a public official or employee may not use his public position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself or any member of his immediate family. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d). Commission Regulation 35-14-5005 extends the relevant prohibitions set forth in R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5 to adult children, whether by blood, marriage or adoption.

In General Commission Advisory (GCA) No. 1, the Commission applied and interpreted these provisions to specific nepotism concerns. In that opinion, the Commission recognized that the cited provisions would prevent a public official or employee from participating in personnel decisions regarding another family member. Specifically, the Commission recognized in GCA No. 1 that, in addition to hiring decisions, the public official or employee would be prohibited from having any significant involvement in decisions concerning reappointment, promotion, or reclassification of a family member. This necessarily includes job performance evaluations since they play a role in job retention, promotion, and other job-related benefits of financial interest to the employee. Additionally, in GCA No. 1, the Commission found that, not only is the public official or employee prohibited from participating in personnel decisions affecting his family member, he is also prohibited from delegating this authority to a subordinate since "the official is in a position to choose and influence the person most likely to favor [his] family member."

In a series of advisory opinions, the Commission has considered whether, in light of the relevant Code provisions and GCA 1, particular public officials or employees could work for the same public agency or entity as other family members. The Commission has declined to adopt a blanket or absolute prohibition against one family member serving in a department or agency in which another family member has supervisory responsibilities. Rather, the Commission generally has taken the position that a public official or employee serving in a supervisory capacity will satisfy the requirements of the State’s Code of Ethics by recusing from participation in matters directly affecting his/her family member. In A.O. 95-71, the Commission recognized that the practicality of achieving this objective may pose a problem since recusal on all relevant issues would require an individual from an unrelated department, not under the public official's control, to make such decisions. Additionally, if the public official recuses on a routine or frequent basis, he may be in violation of Commission Regulation 36-14-5003. Also, recusal in and of itself may not be sufficient because the existing structure of a department necessarily places the family members within the same chain of organizational command. In light of these practical concerns, the Commission recognized that another alternative would be to establish a system within the department or agency that would serve the purpose of insulating the official from all issues directly affecting his family member. To accomplish this end, a procedure must be fashioned so that the public official has no involvement in employment or personnel decisions affecting his/her family member. See A.O. 95-71 (opining that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the Rhode Island Department of Transportation from promoting an individual to the position of Assistant Director of Transportation (Real Estate) where a direct subordinate of her husband would be her immediate supervisor if it established an adequate "Chinese Wall").

Previously, the Commission has considered whether a department or agency had established sufficient procedures to insulate a public official from decisions affecting a member of his family. In opinions issued to the Director of Administration for the City of Cranston and the Secretary of State, respectively, we found that both administrators had devised sufficient hiring and supervisory procedures to insulate the interested public officials from employment decisions affecting their family member. Therefore, the Code of Ethics would not prohibit the City of Cranston or the Secretary of State's office from simultaneously employing both family members. See A.O. 96-109 (advising that the City of Cranston’s Director of Administration could accept appointment to that position where his spouse serves as the City's Purchasing Agent if he does not participate in the day-to-day supervision of his wife and all personnel issues affecting his spouse are handled by the Mayor or an official who does not report to the Petitioner as Director of Administration); A.O. 96-118 (concluding that the Code of Ethics did not prohibit the Secretary of State from hiring and employing the mother of his Chief of Staff since the Petitioner had devised both hiring and supervisory procedures that insulate the Chief of Staff from employment decisions that affected his mother).

We have concluded, however, that a family member could not apply or be hired by a public entity if there were no alternative chain of command that would insulate the public official or employee from employment decisions affecting his family member. See A.O. 97-140 (opining that nephew of the North Smithfield Police Chief could not serve as an officer in the North Smithfield Police Department while his uncle served as Chief since, given the structure of the Police Department, there was no alternative chain of command that would insulate the Chief completely from supervisory responsibilities regarding his nephew); A.O. 97-6 (concluding that the Mayor of North Providence could not hire his cousin to serve as his Director of Personnel, a position that reported directly to the Mayor).

After considering the relevant provisions of the Code of Ethics and past advisory opinions, it is our opinion here that the Rhode Island Code of Ethics does not prohibit URI from hiring and/or employing James Harrick, Jr. as an assistant coach. In reaching that conclusion we rely on the representations of the University’s General Counsel, its Athletic Director and Coach Harrick himself to the effect that Coach Harrick will not take part in the hiring process for the two advertised positions and, if his son is hired, that the Athletic Director will assume all supervisory responsibilities relating to his son. Given this arrangement, which the University has documented in significant detail, it is our opinion that the University, as was the case in the advisory opinions issued to the Secretary of State and the Cranston Director of Administration, has devised a sufficient procedure to insulate Coach Harrick from the hiring and supervisory decisions affecting his son so as to satisfy the requirements of the State’s Code of Ethics.

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Related Advisory Opinions:













Family: public employment

Family: supervision