Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1998-9

Advisory Opinion No. 1998-9
Advisory Opinion No. 1998-9

Application Of The Code Of Ethics To Gifts Provided By The
University Of Connecticut To Public Officials From Another State Entity

On occasion, the University of Connecticut will invite members and staff of the General Assembly to attend one of its athletic or cultural events and a related reception just prior to or following the event. The purpose of the invitation is to have an opportunity to educate the attendees regarding the needs of the University, as well as showcase the diversity of University programs and activities. Ms. Brenda Bergeron, State Ethics Commission Principal Attorney, has asked whether the acceptance of such benefits are permissible, under the Code of Ethics for Public Officials, Chapter 10, Part I, Connecticut General Statutes.

A public official or state employee or member of any such person’s staff or immediate family is prohibited from accepting gifts from a person known to be a registrant or anyone acting on behalf of a registrant. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(j). A registrant means a person who is required to register as a lobbyist, pursuant to the Code of Ethics for Lobbyists, Chapter 10, Part II, Connecticut General Statutes. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(r), 1-91(q). Public officials, state employees of a branch of state government, or the agency itself are exempt from the requirement to register as a lobbyist. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-91(l)(1). In addition, a public official or state employee is prohibited from accepting any gift from any person he or she knows or has reason to know (1) is doing business with the department or agency in which the official or employee is employed or (2) is engaged in activities which are directly regulated by such department or agency. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m). Again, this section is not applicable. Therefore, the University and its employees are not amongst the class of restricted donors which are specifically prohibited from giving gifts or other benefits to a member or staff person of the General Assembly.

Regardless of this conclusion, the Commission has previously ruled that it constitutes an inappropriate use of one’s official position for personal financial gain, in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(c), when a public official or state employee receives excessive gifts or other benefits from a non-restricted donor, if the gift or benefit is bestowed solely by virtue of the individual’s state position. See, e.g., Advisory Opinion No. 92-5, 53 CLJ 38, p. 9C (3/17/92), wherein the Commission held that the gift limits contained in the Codes would be considered the benchmark for determining what is an excessive non lobbyist expenditure, when the benefit was being given by virtue of the recipient’s public position.

A significant factor in the Commission’s decision in Advisory Opinion No. 92-5 was that the Codes’ gift limit (fifty dollars per recipient per calendar year) and the exceptions to the definition of "Gift" (e.g., one hundred and fifty dollars in food and drink per recipient per calendar year) were sufficient to allow essentially unobjectionable entertainment and benefit passing, even when the motivation for the occasion or transaction was the recipient’s state position. Effective January 1, 1998, however, these thresholds have been lowered to prohibit any gift over ten dollars and to limit food and drink to fifty dollars per recipient per calendar year. June 18 Special Session Public Act No. 97-6, 1,6.

Given this legislative enactment, the Commission believes it appropriate to review the above articulated 1-84(c) ban on excessive benefits received by virtue of one’s public position. Specifically, the Commission now holds that the mere receipt of a benefit from a non-restricted donor given by virtue of one’s office does not necessarily equate to an improper use of public position for financial gain. In the situation under review, for example, while the individuals are, unquestionably, receiving the benefits because of their positions in state government, the event at issue is an officially sanctioned University function held for the stated purpose of providing the legislators and staff with information which will be of assistance in fulfilling their legislative duties. Under these circumstances, the appropriateness of the expenditures should not fall within the purview of the State Ethics Commission. Rather, the desirability of such state disbursements should be determined by the University and reviewed by the Auditors of Public Accounts as to whether or not the expenditures are a proper use of state funds and/or assets.

While the foregoing analysis addresses the question of benefits provided to a public official for a public purpose, it does not extend to such benefits provided to the family or guest of the official; a practice in which UCONN has also engaged. As discussed supra, until this year immediate family of a public official would have been allowed to accept these benefits, e.g., a ticket to a sports or cultural event, even if furnished by a lobbyist. Given the current, essentially absolute, ban on gifts from regulated donors, however, the Commission believes the financial thresholds established by the gift law are no longer an appropriate and sufficient benchmark for limiting benefits provided, by virtue of one’s position, from non-regulated benefactors. Alternatively the Commission now adopts the de minimis financial benefits standard set forth in the regulations implementing the Code’s conflict of interest provisions. See, Regulations of Conn. State Agencies Sec. 1-81-30(a). Specifically, under this standard, benefits with a cumulative value of less than one hundred dollars per person per year provided to a public official or immediate family member, by virtue of the official’s position, by a non-regulated donor will be permitted. Application of this standard will allow modest benefits from non-regulated sources, e.g., the UCONN tickets in question, which would not otherwise fall within one of the Codes’ gift exceptions. Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(e)(1)-(16) and 1-91(g)(1)-(16). At the same time, however, the de minimis limitation will prevent the public official from improperly requesting or receiving substantial, and clearly inappropriate, gifts or other benefits by virtue of public position.

By order of the Commission,

Stanley Burdick

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