Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1998-10

Advisory Opinion No. 1998-10
Advisory Opinion No. 1998-10

Application Of Gift Law To Senior Public Official
Attending Charity Tennis Tournament In Official Capacity

State Ethics Commission Principle Attorney Brenda Bergeron has asked the Commission how the gift restrictions set forth in Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m) and the exceptions thereto set forth in 1-79(e)(1) - (16) apply to an official’s attendance at a charity tennis tournament in his or her official capacity.

‘Gift’ means anything of value, which is directly and personally received, unless consideration of equal or greater value is given in return. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(e). Among the exceptions to this general definition provided by the General Assembly pursuant to the June 18 Special Session Public Act No. 97-6 is "admission to a charitable or civic event, including food and beverage provided at such event, but excluding lodging or travel expenses, at which a public official or state employee participates in his official capacity, provided such admission is provided by the primary sponsoring entity." Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(e)(14).

For purposes of this opinion, the following hypothetical facts are assumed: the price of the ticket to the tournament in question is $1,000. The ticket price includes a charitable donation, tennis court fees, and food and beverage served at the event. The ticket price also includes approximately $250 worth of miscellaneous "souvenir" items including umbrellas, tennis balls, shirts etceteras.

While it is clear that the official is entitled under 1-79(e)(14) to accept all admission/court fees to the event as well as any food and beverage served, the Commission has been specifically asked to consider whether the package of souvenir items could properly be accepted if the primary sponsoring entity is: 1) a registered lobbyist, or, 2) a party other than a registered lobbyist.

The overall purpose in the enactment of Public Act 97-6 was to further restrict the number and value of gifts that may be accepted by public officials and state employees. Representative Alex Knopp in commenting on the legislation observed: "There’s no reason why gifts above some nominal amount like $10 are part of legislative business.

…[T]his (bill) separates out … gifts that are not part of the process from those kinds of transactions involving attendance at an event that are part of our work as public officials." House Debate on Bill No. 8005, Friday June 20, 1997 at p. 281.

Taking each question in turn, clearly a registered lobbyist could not circumvent the parameters of the law by utilizing a charity event as a vehicle through which to give other gifts not in keeping with the Code. The exemption at issue does not extend logically on its face to non-essential benefits not specifically provided for legislatively. Accordingly, in light of the above, the official could not accept the souvenir gifts as part of the 1-79(e)(14) exemption.

Similarly, the acceptance of such a benefit by the official from a party other than a registered lobbyist or an entity subject to Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m) would still be precluded as a prohibited use of office pursuant to 1-84(c), as it is by virtue of the official’s state position that he or she receives the benefits incident to the charitable event in question. Clearly the Legislature has determined that the official’s direct and personal receipt of the admission/court fees and food and beverage are not excessive in this context. However, just as in the case of the "necessary expense" provision of 1-79(q), the Legislature has also clearly articulated a limit on the categories of allowable benefits, regardless of the donor.

Only items actually taken by the official are considered directly and personally received. In order to avoid attribution of the value of any item, whether solicited or unsolicited, the recipient must either return the item(s) or reimburse the donor within thirty days. Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies 1-92-54(c).

Finally, however, to the extent that any of the individual souvenir items in question fall within another of the 1-79(e) exemptions (e.g., 1-79(e)(6): a certificate, plaque or other ceremonial award costing less than one hundred dollars), then that benefit may be accepted by the official without regard to the registration status of the primary sponsoring entity.

By order of the Commission,

Stanley Burdick

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:02:27 AM