Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1997-12

Advisory Opinion No. 1997-12
Advisory Opinion No. 1997-12

Application of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m)(3) To The Giving
Of Gifts By State Employees To Their Superiors

Pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m)(3), "No public official or state employee shall knowingly accept, directly or indirectly, any gift or gifts known to amount to fifty dollars or more in value in any calendar year from any person the official or employee knows or has reason to know…has financial interests which may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of official duties by the official or employee."

In a recent enforcement action (State Ethics Commission Docket No. 97-3, In the Matter Of A Complaint Against Members Of The Office Of The Governor) the Commission was required to construe Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m)(3) as it applied to public officials and their subordinates. Specifically, the Governor had accepted gifts (concert tickets) in excess of the statutory limit from his Chief Of Staff, Legal Counsel, and Executive Secretary. In seeking to justify this course of conduct, attorneys for the Governor’s Office admitted that the Governor was, unquestionably, in a position to substantially affect the financial interests of his subordinates (e.g., through the exercise of his authority to hire and fire and grant pay increases). These attorneys maintained, however, that the course of gift giving at issue should be exempt from the 1-84(m)(3) restrictions, based on the preexisting personal relationships between Governor Rowland and the three employees in question.

The State Ethics Commission rejected this legal argument. In essence, the Commission found that the Codes’ gift limitations (Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(j), 1-84(m) and 1-97(a) do not distinguish between business and personal expenditures. To the contrary, the plain language of these provisions contains no indication whatsoever of any intent to establish this distinction. Furthermore, such a blanket exemption would literally vitiate the gift restrictions in question by allowing lobbyists, business interests, and governmental appointees to give gifts, without limit, to senior state decision-makers, based on the potentially ephemeral standard of "friendship".

As a result of the Stipulation and Order resolving Docket No. 97-3, the Commission has received several inquires regarding the application of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m)(3) to the giving of gifts by subordinates to supervisors at state agencies and departments. These inquiries have essentially raised two issues: 1. whether 1-84(m)(3) was intended to apply to such situations; and 2. if so, what is the extent of the law’s application.

  1. It is essentially unarguable that nothing in the legislative history reflects an intention to apply 1-84(m)(3) to the passage of benefits between state employees and officials. It is well settled, however, that when, as in this instance, the plain language of the statute encompasses the conduct in question, an administrative agency is not authorized to examine legislative intent. Sanzone v. Board of Police Commissioners 219 Conn. 179, 187 (1991). Rather, the agency must administer and enforce the law as enacted. Additionally, upon consideration, it does, in the opinion of the Commission, make sense to restrict gifts from subordinates to those senior state officials who can substantially affect the subordinates’ careers and, hence, their financial interests.
  2. The application of 1-84(m)(3) is contingent on the subordinate/supervisor relationship in question. Specifically, if the agency personnel are classified, non-managerial employees, their job-related financial interests are largely determined by statute, regulation, and union contract (e.g., negotiated wage increases). Consequently, only if such an employee is eligible and under consideration for a discretionary promotion or lay-off will the 1-84(m)(3) restriction limit gifts to the state official/decision maker. If the personnel are managers, an additional restriction will apply: such managers are limited, under 1-84(m)(3), with regard to the gifts which may be provided to any superior who determines what annual bonus the manager will receive. Finally, as in the case of the Governor’s office, unclassified personnel, who lack civil service protection, may not exceed the 1-84(m)(3) limits when giving gifts to their appointing authorities.

Obviously, it is not possible to set forth in an advisory opinion explicit rules governing every possible interaction between a subordinate and superior with potential financial ramifications. Consequently, those individuals requiring additional guidance regarding the application of 1-84(m)(3) should contact a Commission attorney for specific advice.

The Commission thinks it important to note that any theoretically harsh result of this Ruling is ameliorated by numerous exemptions to the definition of "Gift"" contained in the Codes. In additional to the permissible fifty dollars per person per year in gifts, exempted are: gifts from immediate family members or one’s fiance or financee; food and drink costing less than one hundred and fifty dollars in the aggregate per recipient per calendar year (provided the person paying for the meal, or his or her representative, is in attendance); and gifts, without limit, given incident to a "major life event" (defined in Commission Regulations to include: a religious ceremonial event such as a confirmation or bar mitzvah; a wedding; a funeral; and the birth or adoption of a child. Regulations of Conn. State Agencies Sec. 1-92-53). Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(e). Additionally, the Code exempts all gifts and other benefits costing less than ten dollars per person per occasion. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79a.

The State Ethics Commission believes that the categorical exemption of legitimate personal activities (such as weddings) is far preferable to the creation of a blanket exception for all gifts between friends, discussed supra. This categorical approach strikes a balance between individual rights and the public interest; a balance which is maintained in the gift reform legislation supported by the Commission and currently under consideration in the General Assembly.

By order of the Commission,

Maurice FitzMaurice

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:02:03 AM