Advisory Opinion No. 99-33

Re: Michael C. Fargnoli, Councilman

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a Johnston Town Councilor, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether he may participate in an appeal, as a Town Councilor sitting as a member of the Personnel Board of Appeals, regarding the dismissal of the Public Works Director given that he and the Public Works Director both are members of the Democratic Town Committee, the former serving as its Chair.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics prohibits the petitioner, a Johnston Town Councilor, municipal elected position, from participating as a Personnel Board of Appeals member regarding the dismissal of the Public Works Director given that he serves with Director on the Johnston Democratic Town Committee.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner, as a Town Councilor, may not participate in any matter in which he has an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of his duties in the public interest. See R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), 36-14-7(a). An official will have an interest in substantial conflict with his official duties if he/she has a reason to believe or expect that a "direct monetary gain" or a "direct monetary loss" will accrue, by virtue of the public official's activity, to the official, a family member, a business associate, an employer, or any business which the public official represents. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). A business associate is defined as "a person joined together with another person to achieve a common financial objective." See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-2(3).

Here, Mr. Fred Iafrate, Jr. was recently dismissed as Director of Public Works for the Town of Johnston. Mr. Iafrate is also the Chairperson of the Democratic Town Committee. Mr. Iafrate is appealing his dismissal to the Town Council sitting as Personnel Board of Appeals pursuant to the Johnston Town Charter.

The Code of Ethics does not bar the petitioner from belonging to political committees, or any other organization. The Code does impose restrictions on public officials, however, depending on the nature of their involvement in activities and organizations beyond their public duties. The Johnston Democratic Town Committee is a political entity. As such, it also is an association that has a financial component. The Code of Ethics defines “business associate” as a person joined together with another person to achieve a common financial objective. While the committee obviously pursues various objectives that are not financial, the existence of a financial component is sufficient to qualify the petitioner and his fellow committee members as business associates. See A.O. 98-42.

Provisions of the Code of Ethics prohibit public officials from acting to benefit financially themselves, family members and business associates. See, e.g., R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 36-14-5(a), (b), (c) and (d). Therefore, the petitioner may not take any action as a Town Councilor which he has reason to believe or expect would result in financial benefit to one of the committee members of such. The appeal of the dismissal with the possibility of returning the individual to his job would be a financial benefit. The petitioner should abide by the notice and recusal provisions of the Code of Ethics with regards to Mr. Iafrate's appeal. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-6.

Code Citations:

36-14-2(3)
36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-7(a)

Related Advisory Opinions:

94-3
95-51
96-78
97-80
98-42
98-107
98-147

Keywords:

Business associates
Political activity