Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 1999-29

Advisory Opinion No. 1999-29
Advisory Opinion No. 1999-29

Application Of The Code Of Ethics To The Employment Of The CoChair
Of The Judiciary Committee By The Connecticut Bar Association

Senator Donald E. Williams, Jr. and the Connecticut Bar Association (CBA) have asked the State Ethics Commission whether it is permissible, under The Code Of Ethics For Public Officials, Conn. Gen. Stat. Chapter 10, Part I, for the CBA to hire Senator Williams as its Director of Professional Development.

The position is responsible for developing and producing programs and services, such as continuing legal education, to further the professional development of the members of the CBA. The work will not involve government relations (i.e., lobbying); nor will it entail practice before any state agencies or courts.

As part of his official responsibilities, Senator Williams currently serves as the CoChair of the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee. Among its powers, this Committee has cognizance over "…all matters relating to the courts, judicial procedure, criminal law, [and] probate courts", as well as jurisdiction over the various specific areas of civil practice; e.g., wills, estates, divorce, bankruptcy, business law, etc. Joint Rules of The General Assembly (1999).

The CBA is, essentially, a professional organization representing and serving Connecticut’s attorneys. As part of its work, it maintains a legislative affairs department, with two in-house lobbyists currently registered with the State Ethics Commission. Additionally, it has lobbying contracts with two outside firms. On its lobbyist registration, the CBA’s stated issues of concern are all "matters related to the practice of law."

The issue of outside employment of the members of the General Assembly has been a frequent topic of previous Commission opinions. State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 89-28, 51 Conn. L.J. No. 17, p. 3C (10/24/89) sets forth a comprehensive summary of these decisions:

As the Commission has previously stated, it is exceedingly difficult to apply the Code’s prohibitions on use of office and acceptance of outside employment which will impair independence of judgment (Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(b) and (c)) to the members of Connecticut’s part time General Assembly. The great majority of legislators must, of economic necessity, pursue outside employment while in state service. Under the circumstances, conflicts of interests are inevitable. In reaching its decisions regarding legislators the Commission must determine when these conflicts are so significant as to require prohibiting or restricting the conduct in question. State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 88-9, 49 Conn. L.J. No. 48, p. 5D (May 31, 1988).  In making its determinations the Commission has focused on whether the legislator had any specific, on-going authority over the business, industry, or profession in question. Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 84-12, 46 Conn. L.J. No. 17, p. 1C (October 23, 1984). Additionally, the Commission has based its previous rulings on whether the legislator’s employment was a financially significant new undertaking or merely a continuation, at no appreciably greater level, of work commenced before the individual assumed the public office in question. State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinions Nos. 80-21, 42 Conn. L.J. No. 26, p. 23 (December 23, 1980) and 81-1, 42 Conn. L.J. No. 32, p. 10 (February 3, 1981). In particular, the Commission has been concerned over possible conflicts involving a committee chairman, because of the substantial power he or she holds over persons subject to the committee’s jurisdiction. See, e.g., State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinions Nos. 88-9, 49 Conn. L.J. No. 48, p. 5D (May 31, 1988) and 89-7, 50 Conn. L.J. No. 44, p. 1C (May 2, 1989).

The concerns expressed in these prior Rulings led the Commission to: bar the CoChair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee from representing clients before the Workers’ Compensation Commission (A.O. Nos. 88-9 and 89-7); and prohibit the CoChair of the Banks Committee from representing investors seeking to purchase a Connecticut bank or an out-of-state bank with an interest in legislation which must come before the Banks Committee (A.O. No. 89-28).

Applying the precedent established by these decisions to the question under review, Senator Williams’ acceptance of employment with the CBA would appear problematic. The Senator, however, has proposed a resolution which will allow him to accept the CBA position, retain his Co-Chairmanship, and, at the same time, address the ethical concerns raised by the Commission.

Specifically, he has proposed not only to recuse himself from matters affecting his substantial financial interests, as required by law, but also to voluntarily recuse himself from matters affecting the significant interests of his employer. In essence, this additional recusal would encompass both legislation specifically affecting the financial interests of the CBA as an association (e.g., a proposal to combine the current functions of the Association with regulation of the profession) and legislation which the CBA has endorsed as an Association priority (i.e., the legislative program adopted by the CBA for each session of the General Assembly and lobbied by the CBA’s registrants).

Adherence to the substance and spirit of this proposal will satisfy the ethical concerns expressed by the Commission in this matter. Furthermore, in the Commission’s view, the proposal represents a balanced approach which should maintain public confidence in the integrity of the legislative process while, at the same time, allowing Connecticut’s part-time legislators to pursue legitimate opportunities for career advancement.

By order of the Commission,

Stanley Burdick,

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:02:57 AM