Advisory Opinion No. 99-25

Re: Dorothy C. Berube

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a Coventry Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether she may attend events sponsored by the Coventry Teachers Alliance, a political action committee affiliated with the Town’s teachers’ union that makes campaign contributions to candidates for the Council, at which dinner and drinks are provided to attendees by the sponsors, and also inquires as to whether members of the Town’s School Committee, also municipal elected officials, may attend such an event.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a Coventry Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, may attend events sponsored by the Coventry Teachers Alliance, a political action committee affiliated with the Town’s teachers’ union, at which dinner and drinks are provided to attendees by the sponsors, because as to members of the Town Council the Alliance and its membership are not “interested persons” under the state’s gift regulation. As to the petitioner’s inquiry about whether members of the School Committee may attend such an event, the Commission is constrained by regulations and practice not to respond given that the members of the School Committee have not authorized the petitioner to request an advisory opinion on their behalf. The Commission further notes that the fact that the Coventry Teachers Alliance makes campaign contributions to members of the Town Council has no bearing on this matter, unless such contributions are given with a specific understanding that actions of the Council would be influenced thereby. See DiPrete v. Morsilli, 635 A.2d 1155, 1160 (R.I. 1994).

Commission Regulation 5009, provides that a public official may not accept a gift from an "interested person." The Regulation defines that term as any individual or business entity "that has a direct financial interest in a decision that the person subject to the Code of Ethics is authorized to make, or participate in the making of, as part of his or her official duties." Here, members of the Town Council neither negotiate with nor vote on specific line items related to the Coventry Teachers Alliance and its membership. Rather, on an annual basis the Council votes on the Town budget in toto, with no ability to adjust specific line items in the budget, including those affecting the school department and its employees. While in most years the single largest item in the budget considered by the Town Council relates to the school department, with the bulk of that item directly attributable to teacher salaries, the ability of the Council to affect the specifics of that line item are too remote to qualify the Coventry Teachers Alliance and its membership as “interested persons” with respect to the Council. If, however, members of the Council, or any public official for that matter, had the ability to affect line items related to the Alliance and its membership then they would be “interested persons” under the gift regulation and the public official would be prohibited from accepting anything of value from them, including food and drink at a reception or other event.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(g)
36-14-5(i)
36-14-5009

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-14
98-121
98-114
98-100

Keywords:

Gifts