Advisory Opinion No. 99-150

Re: The Honorable Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, Jr.

QUESTION PRESENTED

The Petitioner, the Chief Judge of the Rhode Island Family Court, a state appointed position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether the Family Court 1) may solicit and accept the donation of items from private entities for distribution to participants in its proposed Juvenile Drug Court; and 2) may accept food donated by food vendors for use at Drug Court graduation ceremonies.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that, consistent with the dictates of the Code of Ethics, the Rhode Island Family Court 1) may solicit and accept the donation of items from private entities for distribution to participants in its proposed Juvenile Drug Court; and 2) may accept food donated by food vendors for use at Drug Court graduation ceremonies.

The petitioner advises that the Family Court will be establishing a Juvenile Drug Court, which will provide participants with incentives for treatment progress and sanctions for treatment failure. He indicates that such incentives may include gift certificates to fast food restaurants, movie passes, tickets to sporting events, transportation tokens and gift certificates for CDs or tapes.

Under the Code of Ethics, a public official is prohibited from using his public office or confidential information received through his office to obtain financial gain, other than that provided by law, for himself, a family member, or an employer. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d). He may not solicit or accept a gift or certain contributions with the understanding that the official’s vote, official action, or judgment would be influenced thereby. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(g). Further, Commission Regulation 36-14-5009 provides that no person subject to the Code shall accept a gift from an “interested person.” The regulation defines “interested person” as an individual or business entity “that has a direct financial interest in a decision that the person subject to the Code of Ethics is authorized to make, or to participate in the making of, as part of his or her official duties.” Finally, Commission Regulation 5011 prohibits individuals subject to the Code from soliciting contributions, either directly or through a surrogate, from a subordinate over whom he or she exercises supervisory responsibilities in the course of his or her official duties. See Commission Regulation 36-14-5011. However, that prohibition does not apply where the subordinate initiates the solicitation for the contribution, is part of a regular commercial business or occupation, or is a charitable or fund raising event under the general sponsorship of a municipality or state.

The Commission concludes that the Code of Ethics does not prohibit the Family Court either from soliciting private entities for the donation of items to be distributed to its Juvenile Drug Court participants or from accepting food donations for use at the program’s graduation ceremonies. Here, the intended solicitation is for the benefit of the program’s participants, and as such, constitutes a public purpose. Solicitations for such a public purpose would not constitute the use of official position to obtain improper financial gain or constitute an improper gift, given that any benefit would accrue directly to the program and its participants. See R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(d) and Commission Regulation 36-14-5009.

Accordingly, the Family Court may solicit private corporations and non-profit organizations to obtain incentives for the program provided that there is broad based solicitation of local individuals, organizations and businesses, and not just of persons or entities currently doing business with the Family Court. However, in the event that the petitioner is in a position to exercise discretion over a matter involving an entity/individual that has been solicited, whether or not the individual or entity actually made a contribution, the petitioner should seek another advisory opinion before exercising his authority.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-5(d)
36-14-5(g)
36-14-5009
36-14-5011

Related Advisory Opinions:

99-111
98-163
98-155
98-140
98-63
95-42

Keywords:
Donations
Solicitation