Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1996-15

Advisory Opinion No. 1996-15
Advisory Opinion No. 1996-15

Application Of The Code Of Ethics To The Spouse Of A High Sheriff
Providing Support Services To Deputy Sheriffs

The High Sheriff Of Hartford County, Walter J. Kupchunos, Jr., has asked how the requirements of The Code Of Ethics For Public Officials, Conn. Gen. Stat. Chapter 10, Part I, apply to certain outside employment engaged in by his wife.

Specifically, the High Sheriff’s spouse has been typing his returns and bills for service of process, as well as those of another deputy sheriff, since 1989. She was compensated by both her husband and the other deputy for this work. When Mr. Kupchunos assumed office as High Sheriff on June 1, 1995, his wife also took on the responsibility of typing returns and bills for two new Hartford County deputy sheriffs. This work was undertaken in response to requests from the two deputies, and also involved another person who assisted Ms. Kupchunos with her expanded duties. The deputies paid a set fee ($50 per month each) for use of office space, equipment and supplies; and additionally paid either Ms. Kupchunos or her co-worker for typing as performed. During the last six months of 1995 Ms. Kupchunos earned approximately $5,000 from her work for the two new deputies. Commencing on January 1, 1996, Ms. Kupchunos’ duties assisting her husband "with the political side" of his office made it impractical for her to continue this work (although she has continued to perform these clerical services for the High Sheriff). She did, however, occasionally assist her former co-worker, earning approximately $350 from January to June 1996.

Given his position as High Sheriff, Mr. Kupchunos has asked whether his wife may, under The Code Of Ethics For Public Officials, prospectively perform the above delineated, compensated work for him and his deputies.

As a threshold issue, it must be understood that the Code’s proscription on impermissible use of office (Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 1-84(c)) directly applies only to the officeholder, not the spouse. This provision can, however, result in limitations on the employment of the spouse, since the public official cannot use his position for her financial benefit (e.g., agency head cannot appoint spouse to a position with that agency).

Applying Sec. 1-84(c) to the matter under review, the potential conflicts become readily apparent. As High Sheriff, Mr. Kupchunos has sole authority to appoint his deputies. Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 6-45. Although the High Sheriff’s past unfettered discretion to dismiss his deputies has been eliminated, he may still remove a deputy for cause. Id. as amended by P.A. 94-177. Additionally, the High Sheriff can directly affect the income of a deputy through the apportionment of work which comes into the High Sheriff’s Office. As a consequence, if his wife provided compensated services to certain Hartford County deputies, the High Sheriff could increase her fees by increasing the work of these deputies. Furthermore, even absent such an arrangement, it would be exceedingly difficult for an objective observer to conclude that the deputies’ hiring of the High Sheriff’s wife was done with no consideration of his official position and powers. Under these circumstances, impermissible use of the High Sheriff’s office for the financial benefit of his wife, however inadvertent, is essentially inevitable.

Notwithstanding these inherent conflicts, Ms. Kupchunos will not be totally prohibited from performing the work in question. Rather, such employment is permissible under two conditions: 1. her remuneration does not exceed fair market value. State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 91-7, 52 Conn. L.J. No. 40, p. 3C (April 2, 1991) (Legislator may accept work from a lobbyist if payment for the product or service is commercially reasonable.); and 2. the level of activity is approximately equivalent to her workload before Mr. Kupchunos became High Sheriff. State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 81-1, 42 Conn. L.J. No. 32, p. 10 (February 3, 1981).(Legislator may continue to provide services to a quasi-public agency as long as the level of services is not significantly greater than the level provided before his election.) Adherence to these two well established precedents will sufficiently insulate Ms. Kupchunos’ employment from her husband’s official authority to avoid violations of the Code.

Finally, as the Commission has consistently held, the Code prohibits only use of office, not use of expertise. Regulations of Conn. State. Agencies Sec. 1-81-17. Therefore, Ms. Kupchunos may provide her services without limitation to those individuals, e.g., deputy sheriffs in other counties, not subject to her husband’s official authority.

By order of the Commission,

David T. Nassef

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:01:37 AM