Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1998-13

Advisory Opinion No. 1998-13
Advisory Opinion No. 1998-13

Application Of The Code To Payments For Spouses Of UCONN
Personnel To Participate In University Functions

In State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 97-14, the University of Connecticut (UCONN) asked the State Ethics Commission whether, consistent with the requirements of The Code Of Ethics For Public Officials, Conn. Gen. Stat. Chapter 10, Part I, UCONN could pay the cost for the spouses of University officials and employees to attend certain UCONN events, e.g., "cultivation, recognition and stewardship events for donors, potential donors, alumni and other friends." Advisory Opinion No. 97-14, 59 Conn. L.J. No. 1, p. 4D (7/1/97). As a rationale for this request, UCONN stated that the presence of spouses contributed to the success of these events and was customary in academia. Id.

Based on consistent precedent, the Commission rejected UCONN’s request. In essence, this precedent held that receipt of such payments, granted solely by virtue of the spouse’s relationship to the state servant, would constitute an improper use of public office or position for the financial benefit of one’s immediate family in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(c). Id. In making its ruling, the Commission further noted that a contrary decision would: unilaterally establish an exception for UCONN personnel; and would sanction a system which allowed the involved officials to grant "perks" to their spouses, in excess of these officials’ agreed upon compensation. Id.

As an alternative procedure, the Commission reiterated its position that "…the statutory limitations on gifts established for lobbyists are amounts which the Legislature has deemed to be non-excessive and, therefore, unobjectionable under the law." Id. See, also, Advisory Opinion No. 92-5, 53 Conn. L.J. No. 38, p. 9C (3/17/92). Consequently, the receipt of such benefits (e.g., up to fifty dollars in gifts and one hundred and fifty dollars in food and drink per person per year), whether from UCONN or from another non-regulated donor, would be permissible under the Codes; and would allow UCONN a certain degree of flexibility in funding spousal participation in University events.

Effective January 1, 1998, however, the Codes’ gift limitations have been significantly reduced by legislative enactment (e.g., no gift of over ten dollars and only fifty dollars in food and drink per recipient per year). June 18 Special Session Public Act No. 97-6 1, 2, 4, 6, and 8. As a consequence of these statutory amendments, and based on administrative difficulties created by adherence to the dictates of A.O. No. 97-14, UCONN has asked the Commission to reconsider the sections of that Ruling which prohibit payment for spousal participation in University functions. The Commission hereby grants this request for reconsideration, and modifies its holding in A.O. No. 97-14 as follows.

In a recently adopted Advisory Opinion, the Commission, taking cognizance of the above referenced legislative amendments to the Gift Law, held that "…the mere receipt of a benefit given by virtue of one’s office does not necessarily equate to an improper use of public position for financial gain." Advisory Opinion No. 98-9, __ Conn. L.J. No. __, p. __ (__/__/__). Rather, the Commission ruled that, henceforth, even when the expenditure constituted a desirable benefit (e.g., a ticket to a sports or cultural event) and even when the benefit was being given solely by virtue of one’s state status, the Code’s use of office provision would not be violated, if the benefit in question furthered a legitimate State purpose. Applying this rationale to the question under review, the Commission therefore holds that UCONN may pay for spousal participation in fundraising events. See, Conn. Gen. Stat. 10a-104(8): University of Connecticut required to "promote fund-raising to assist the university". This Ruling does not, however, create a blanket exception permitting payment for spousal participation in events based on academic custom. Under that circumstance, the traditions of the University must continue to yield to the general requirements of the Ethics Code.

In rendering this decision, the Commission is not unmindful of its previously articulated concern regarding the creation of a specific exception for the spouses of University personnel. The Commission is now convinced, however, that such an exception is justified, in this instance, by the fundraising mandate under which the University operates. (See, e.g., Advisory Opinion No. 93-17, 55 Conn. L.J. No. 14, p. 3C (10/5/93) wherein the Commission held that: an exception to the Code’s necessary expense payment limitations was appropriate for the spouse of the Governor, given his or her unique role in various official functions.) Additionally, the Commission remains mindful of its past concern that the creation of a spousal exception could permit UCONN officials to become involved in determinations which granted various benefits to their spouses. To prevent such a practice, any decision to allow payment for spousal participation in UCONN fundraising must be made by one’s superior, subject to final review by the University President. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(c) and 1-86(a).

By order of the Commission,

Stanley Burdick

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