Advisory Opinion No. 99-96

Re: George F. Lenihan, Jr. and T. Brian Handrigan

QUESTION PRESENTED

The Narragansett Town Solicitor requests an advisory opinion on behalf of the petitioners, Narragansett Town Councilors, municipal elected positions, as to whether they may participate in the Council’s consideration of whether to reimburse a former Council member for legal fees, given that he supported the petitioners’ candidacy.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioners, Narragansett Town Councilors, municipal elected positions, may participate and vote in the Council’s consideration of whether to reimburse a former Council member for legal fees, given that they do not have a familial relationship and no business association exists among the parties.

The petitioners advise that the Narragansett Town Council will be considering whether to reimburse a former Council member for legal fees expended in the defense of a Complaint filed against him with the Ethics Commission. They indicate that the individual publicly supported their candidacy for Town Council as endorsed Democrats and may have distributed campaign literature for them.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioners may not participate in any matter in which they have an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of their 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 or her official duties if he or 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, no familial or private business relationship exists among the parties which would bar the petitioners from participating and voting on Town Council matters concerning the reimbursement of a former Council member’s legal expenses. The fact that they may take public action involving an individual who publicly supported their candidacy and may have distributed their campaign literature does not create a conflict of interest. Previously, the Commission concluded that a social relationship between a public official and a person appearing before him or her does not, absent some other factor, cause impermissible conflicts within the meaning of the Code of Ethics. See A.O. 92-72 (Middletown Zoning Board member could participate in matter where social relationship but no business relationship exists with applicant provided that the Council member could act in an impartial manner concerning that person’s application). Further, shared political affiliations and objectives, in and of themselves, are not relevant for purposes of the Code.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-90
99-40
99-32
99-21
96-62
92-72

Keywords:

Business Associate
Code Jurisdiction
Political Activity