Advisory Opinion No. 99-145

Re: Providence City Council (John Lombardi)

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, the Providence City Council President, a municipal elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether, on behalf of colleagues and constituents, Council members may provide letters of support and/or recommendation on official City Council letterhead.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit members of the Providence City Council, municipal elected positions, from providing letters of support and/or recommendation, on behalf of colleagues and constituents, on official City Council letterhead.

Under the Code of Ethics, specifically R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d), a public official is prohibited from using his or her public position or confidential information received through his or her position to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself or herself, a family member, a business associate, an employer, or any business which he or she represents. The use of public resources, here through the use of city personnel, postage meter, paper, or actual funds, for private purposes implicates this provision of the Code of Ethics if a nexus exists between the use of the private resources and a cognizable financial gain to the public official or a related party. However, whether and to what extent a particular correspondence is for private rather than public purposes necessarily is a fact specific determination.

The Commission has concluded on numerous occasions, in the advisory opinion and complaint contexts, that public officials may not use their public office for private gain. Typically, those situations have involved an official participating or voting in a matter that would benefit himself or herself, an employer, a family member, or a business associate. Here, the petitioner represents that it has been the Council’s practice to have office staff research, write and forward letters of support when requests are received from constituents and/or interested parties. He indicates that the requests range from letters of recommendation for employment and school placements to character references and letters to the State Parole Board.

The Commission concludes that the provision of letters of recommendation for employment on behalf of individuals employed by the City represents a public purpose. As such, the use of staff and official Council letterhead for same would not run afoul of the Code of Ethics. The petitioner advises that Council members also receive requests from other public officials, asking them to collaborate on letters of support for constituents regarding disability issues, entrance into the military, and placement in elderly housing. These items would appear to represent a public purpose if sent in response to a request from a constituent. However, whether such correspondence should be sent on letterhead paid for by public funds or on Council letterhead paid for by the individual official may be a policy issue to be determined by the City. This opinion does not address the narrower issue of whether Council members properly may utilize public resources to provide letters of recommendation and/or support when the individual/entity seeking such recommendation is one of those enumerated within the prohibitions of R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d).

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-58