Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 2002-5

Advisory Opinion No. 2002-5
Advisory Opinion No. 2002-5

Application Of The Code To Contributions To A State
Employee’s Legal Defense Fund

The Hon. Arthur L. Spada, Commissioner of Public Safety, has asked the State Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion regarding the following question:

"Does the State Ethics Code prohibit a state trooper from serving as a resident trooper in a town where several of its resident citizens have given money to retain an attorney to assist the trooper in litigation arising out of his service as an employee of the Department of Public Safety?

As a threshold issue, it is beyond the authority of the State Ethics Commission to determine whether or not a resident trooper may serve in a particular jurisdiction. It is, however, within the Commission’s power to determine whether or not a resident trooper may accept such financial assistance from citizens in the town he or she serves.

Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(m), in pertinent part, states that: No…state employee shall knowingly accept, directly or indirectly, any gift…from any person the…employee knows or has reason to know…. (2) is engaged in activities which are directly regulated by [the employee’s] department or agency."

Clearly in its exercise of the State’s police powers, the Department of Public Safety exercises regulatory authority, as that term is commonly understood, over Connecticut’s citizenry. See, e.g., Conn. Gen. Stat. 29-7. Additionally, a resident trooper is explicitly authorized to exercise these powers in the town he oversees. Conn. Gen. Stat. 29-5.

In considering the application of 1-84(m)(2) to agencies and departments with actual or potential regulatory authority over all or a substantial portion of the state’s population, the Commission has adopted what it believes to be an appropriately narrow construction of the statute. See, e.g., State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 2002-1, C.L.J. No.___, p.____(_______): wherein the Commission held that in applying 1-84(m)(2) to the Department of Revenue Services, gifts would be prohibited, not from all taxpayers to all employees, but only "from persons selected for or currently being audited by the Department and from persons otherwise involved in contested matters with the Department." Applying this construction to the instant matter, 1-84(m)(2) will prohibit a resident trooper from accepting gifts from the residents, businesses, and institutions of the town he oversees in his police capacity.

Included within this gift prohibition are contributions to a legal defense fund. See, e.g., State Ethics Commission Declaratory Rulings 89-E and 89-F: wherein the Commission held respectively that contributions to a state employee’s and public official’s legal defense funds were subject to the Code’s use of office provision (1-84(c)) and gift limitations. Applying these Rulings to the question under review: a resident trooper may not solicit contributions to a legal defense fund from persons in the town he polices; and may not accept contributions of $10 or more (the threshold for the gift ban established under 1-79(e)(16)) from any such donor.

While the foregoing fully responds to Commissioner Spada’s query, additional information provided by the resident trooper’s attorney merits further consideration of the matter.

Specifically, it is asserted that the contributions in question were neither solicited nor received by the trooper. Rather, the fund was administered by a law firm which maintained the contributions in a "blind account", preserving the confidentiality of all donors.

The additional question posed is whether such safeguards are sufficient to allow the collection and utilization of the contributions in question consistent with the requirements of the Code. While this question is capable of alternative analysis, in the Commission’s view the ultimate answer is no. First, 1-84(m)(2) applies to acceptance of any gift, whether "directly or indirectly" received. Secondly, despite the best efforts and good intentions of all concerned, given human nature it is unreasonable to assume that over time the sources of the contributions would not, at least in significant part, become matters of public knowledge.

The State Ethics Commission has been advised that, in advance of this Ruling, all contributions have been returned. The Commission has been further advised that, to this date, the trooper in question has no knowledge of the sources of the contributions. Furthermore, the Commission has no reason to conclude that the trooper, if apprised of said sources, would inappropriately alter his official conduct in any way as a result. It is the Commission’s holding that this matter is, therefore, closed.

By order of the Commission,

Rosemary Giuliano

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:04:20 AM