Advisory Opinion No. 99-114

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 participate in the negotiation, discussion and vote on the purchase of property from persons who served as hosts for a fundraiser for the petitioner’s re-election.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission, that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner from participating in the negotiation, discussion and vote on the purchase of property from persons who served as hosts of a fundraiser for the petitioner’s re-election.

Under the Code of Ethics, the petitioner may not participate in any matter in which she has an interest, financial or otherwise, which is in substantial conflict with the proper discharge of her 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). Further, the Code provides that the petitioner shall not solicit or accept a gift or campaign contribution based on any understanding that her vote, official action, or judgment would thereby be influenced. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(g).

Here, no familial or private business relationship exists among the parties that would bar the petitioner from participating and voting on Town Council matters concerning the purchase of property. The fact that she may take public action involving an individual who publicly supported her candidacy and hosted a party for the purpose of raising campaign funds does not in and of itself create a conflict of interest. See A.O. 99-90 and A.O. 99-96. Shared political affiliations and objectives, in and of themselves, do not trigger any of the prohibitions set out in the Code. Additionally, the Commission does not have any information that the sellers served as hosts to the petitioner with the expectation that she would be participating favorably in her role as Town Councilor regarding the Town’s purchase of property from them. Without either a relationship covered by the Code of Ethics (e.g., business associate, family, or employer) or a quid pro quo arrangement indicating that the petitioner’s judgment would be affected due to the receipt of a party or campaign contribution, nothing in the Code of Ethics prohibits her from participating in this matter. When enacting the Code of Ethics, the General Assembly included as one of its legislative purposes the elimination of appearances of impropriety. The legislature did not, however, make the appearance of impropriety a violation of the law. Therefore, if the petitioner believes her participating would create an appearance of impropriety, she may, although she is not required to do so, recuse.

Code Citations:

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

Related Advisory Opinions:

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

Keywords:

Business Associate
Code Jurisdiction
Political Activity