Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1996-1

Advisory Opinion No. 1996-1
Advisory Opinion No. 1996-1

Restrictions On Outside Legal Work Performed By An
Associate Dean Of A
Connecticut University
For University Students

William Bumpus is the Associate Dean and an Associate Professor at the Central Connecticut State University’s (CCSU) School of Business; he is also an attorney.  Because of his legal background, including former work as an Assistant State’s Attorney, he is frequently approached by CCSU students seeking legal representation.  It had been his practice to request that these students make a charitable contribution to a scholarship fund or promise to complete a certain number of hours of charity work in lieu of payment for the legal services.  Commencing in 1995, however, Attorney Bumpus has had these student/clients pay him directly for his work.  He, in turn, makes an equal contribution to the CCSU Foundation, so that he may claim the amount as a charitable contribution for tax purposes.

Based on the above, Attorney Bumpus has asked the State Ethics Commission whether, under the Code of Ethics for Public Officials, Conn. Gen. Stat. Chapter 10, Part I, it is permissible for him to charge CCSU students for legal representation.  He further wishes to know whether the Code establishes a distinction with regard to his performing compensated legal work for CCSU business students (over whom he exercises some official authority) as opposed to the rest of the student body (over whom he has no direct control).  Finally, he inquires as to the propriety of his representing CCSU students in criminal matters arising out of incidents on the campus.

Pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(b) and (c), no public official or state employee may accept outside employment which will impair independence of judgment as to state duties or require or induce disclosure of confidential state information; nor may such an individual use state position or confidential information acquired through state service to obtain personal financial gain.  Generally 1-84(b) and (c) are violated when the public official or state employee accepts outside employment with an individual or entity which can benefit from the state servant’s official actions.  Regulations of Conn. State Agencies Sec. 1-81-17.  These provisions do not, however, prevent a public official or state employee from using his or her expertise, including expertise gained in state service, for personal gain, as long as no Code provision is violated.  Id.

As a threshold issue, it is unambiguous, under the Commission’s prior interpretations, that the use of a charitable contribution to permit a tax deduction is a quantifiable financial gain under the pertinent provisions of the Code.  Regulations of Conn. State Agencies Sec. 1-81-26; see also, Advisory Opinion No. 95-18 __ CLJ __, p. __ (      ).

Taking Attorney Bumpus’ first two questions together, there is a substantive distinction, under the Code, in his providing compensated legal services to business and non-business students.  In the first instance, use of official position, however inadvertent, will be unavoidable, since the potential private clients are under the state servant’s official authority as Associate Dean or Associate Professor.  Attorney Bumpus may not, therefore, accept such persons as legal clients, unless he reverts to his prior fee arrangement or otherwise eschews the resultant charitable deduction.  With regard to the remainder of the CCSU student body, as long as Attorney Bumpus, as Associate Dean and Professor, exercises no official authority over this group, he may accept such individuals as legal clients, donate the resultant fees to the CCSU Foundation and claim a charitable contribution for tax purposes.  It must be realized, however, that if, during the course of his representation, such a client becomes a CCSU business school student or enrolls in one of Attorney Bumpus’ classes he must, once again, refrain from claiming any resultant tax deduction in order to avoid the above discussed conflict of interest.

Finally, as a member of the CCSU administration, Attorney Bumpus should avoid representation of CCSU students in criminal matters arising out of incidents on the campus.  Under such circumstances, the opportunity for a senior university official to use his authority, however inadvertently, for the benefit of a client and the potential for access to confidential or insider information are substantial.  (Furthermore, although beyond the purview of the Commission, these conflicts are magnified by the fact that the University itself will often by formally drawn into the controversy; e.g., as complainant, arresting authority or a potentially negligent or otherwise liable party.)  Given these numerous and multi-faceted ethical considerations, an attorney who is also a University Dean should not undertake to represent students in criminal cases emanating from on-campus incidents.

By order of the Commission,

David T. Nassef

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:01:36 AM