Advisory Opinion No. 99-132

Re: City of Pawtucket – Travel Expense Issue

QUESTION PRESENTED

Petitioner, the City of Pawtucket, through its City Solicitor, requests an advisory opinion as to whether the City may proceed with the final phases of a bid process for the purchase of a new fire truck given that the Chief of the Fire Department and the City Mechanic, both of whom participated in the process of evaluating submitted bids, accepted a trip paid for by one of the bidders to its manufacturing plant in Louisiana.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the petitioner, the City of Pawtucket, from proceeding with the final phases of a bid process for the purchase of a new fire truck notwithstanding that the Chief of the Fire Department and the City Mechanic, both of whom participated in the process of evaluating submitted bids, accepted a trip paid for by one of the bidders to its manufacturing plant in Louisiana. The Commission further advises the petitioner, however, that the law constrains the Commission to issue advisory opinions only as to the rights and responsibilities of the individual(s) or entity requesting the opinion, and only as to prospective, not past conduct. Therefore, the Commission's conclusion that the City may act to complete the bid process without violating the Code of Ethics is not a determination as to the appropriateness or lawfulness of any past conduct, nor does it preclude a challenge to the awarding of the contract at a later date based upon any past conduct.

The City of Pawtucket Fire Department received a $275,000.00 Community Development Block Grant for the purchase of a new fire truck. In response to a request for proposals the City received four bids, two of which ultimately were disqualified. The two remaining bids were from a Florida firm and a Louisiana company. Earlier this month the City's Fire Chief and the City Mechanic traveled to Louisiana to visit the vendor's facility and inspect the apparatus for the prospective purchase. The vendor paid all travel and lodging costs associated with the trip. No such trip was made to the Florida company's facility. The Fire Chief and the City Mechanic accepted the trip without consultation with the City's Administration or Legal Department. Upon learning of the trip the City reimbursed the vendor for the full amount of the two men's expenses and placed a "hold" on the bidding process subject to a receipt of an opinion from this Commission. At the time of the "hold" the Chief had submitted a report to the City's Purchasing Board recommending that the fire truck be purchased from the Louisiana vendor. He based his recommendation 1) on his ability to inspect the apparatus and view the factory, and 2) on the fact that the Louisiana vendor's bid was the lowest by slightly less than $15,000.

Nothing in the law prohibits the City from proceeding with the bidding process. Presumably neither the Fire Chief nor the City Mechanic will have any future involvement with the process. Therefore, those who will be taking action from this point on do not face any restrictions under the Code of Ethics. The Commission further advises the petitioner, however, that the law constrains the Commission to issue advisory opinions only as to the rights and responsibilities of the individual(s) or entity requesting the opinion, and only as to prospective, not past conduct. Therefore, the Commission's conclusion that the City may act to complete the bid process without violating the Code of Ethics is not a determination as to the appropriateness or lawfulness of any past conduct, nor does it preclude a challenge to the awarding of the contract at a later date based upon any past conduct.

Related Advisory Opinions:

97-110

Related Case Law:

Treaster v. Rhode Island Mobile and Manufactured
Home Commission, 644 A.2d 314 (R.I. 1994).