Ethics: Advisory Opinion No. 2004-10

Advisory Opinion No. 2004-10
Advisory Opinion No. 2004-10

Application Of The Code’s Charitable Event Gift Exception
To The National Political Conventions

With the national political conventions taking place this summer, the State Ethics Commission has received inquiries regarding the legality, under the Codes of Ethics, of the following event.

AFLAC, a corporation registered as a lobbyist in Connecticut, is planning to hold a concert at the Republican National Convention in New York City.  The concert is to be conducted as a charitable event, with Camp Sunshine of Decatur Georgia, which provides programs for children with cancer, listed as the sponsor.  AFLAC has committed $100,000 to underwrite the concert and is soliciting additional contributions of from $2,500 to $100,000 from various donors.  Donors will receive concert tickets and other benefits in return for their contributions.  The net proceeds from the event will go to Camp Sunshine.

Based on these facts, the Commission has been asked whether, and if so under what circumstances, Connecticut public officials, state employees and members of their immediate families could accept free tickets to the concert.

As a threshold issue, it is necessary to recognize that the Codes’ gift provisions contain no exemption, explicit or otherwise, for events conducted at the national conventions.  Therefore, for free attendance at such an event to be permissible under Connecticut’s Ethics Law the event must either:  (1) fall within the statutory annual limits for gifts and meals (ten dollars and fifty dollars respectively), if provided by a regulated donor; (2) qualify for another exemption to the gift ban; or (3) total less than one hundred dollars if provided by virtue of one’s official position by a nonregulated donor (i.e., a person not registered as a lobbyist; not regulated by one’s agency and not doing business with or seeking business from one’s agency).

In this instance, the concert ticket price will be above the allowable statutory limits, whether provided by a regulated or non-regulated donor.  Specifically, based on information provided by AFLAC, the cost of a general admission ticket is in excess of $800.00.  The portion of this amount which will be contributed to charity has not yet been determined.  Therefore, for free admission to be permissible, another gift exception must apply.  Specifically, exempt under Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(e)(14) and 1-91(g)(14) 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.”

For this exception to apply to the event in question, certain criteria must be met and certain limitations followed: 

1.   The public official or state employee must be invited to participate “in his official capacity.”  To qualify under the statutory requirement, the state servant must be directly invited because of his or her state position or indirectly invited as a convention delegate selected by virtue of one’s state position.  Under this limited admission/food and drink exception, the participation component of the provision is met by one’s attendance at the charitable event.  See, e.g., State Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion No. 98-10 59 CLJ 45, p. 6D (5/5/98) wherein the Commission held that a public official’s participation in a charity golf tournament, without any additional official involvement, qualified for the exception.  (In contrast, to qualify for the receipt of necessary expenses, including travel and lodging, pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(k), the official’s participation must include substantive activities such as a speech or panel presentation.)  Lastly, by its terms, the exception applies only to the public official or state employee and does not extend to immediate family members. 

2.   Again pursuant to statute, the exemption applies only if admission is provided by “…the primary sponsoring entity.”  Therefore, for a Connecticut public official or state employee to accept free admission to the concert in question, said admission must be provided by Camp Sunshine.  Neither AFLAC nor any other corporate sponsor subject to Connecticut’s gift ban (Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-84(j) and (m)) may utilize the exception, nor may such entity direct Camp Sunshine to invite a Connecticut state servant. 

3.   Additionally, the exception permits only acceptance of admission to the event and food and beverage.  Therefore, if any tangible gifts are provided with a fair market value of over ten dollars, such items must be declined or the recipient must pay said fair market value. 

4.  Finally, the Ethics Code would not prevent a Connecticut public official, state employee or member of their staff or immediate family from paying to attend the event in question.    In doing so, the purchaser, consistent with the Code and Commission regulations, need only pay for the benefits that are “directly and personally received.” See definition of “gift;” Conn. Gen. Stat. 1-79(e) and Regulations of Conn. State Agencies 1-92-54.  Therefore, if a donor wishes to give a ticket to the event to a Connecticut public official or state employee, or a staff or family member of such an official or employee, the recipient may accept the ticket if he or she pays the portion of the ticket that correlates to the amount that he or she directly and personally receives over and above the gift limit applicable to the category of donor (i.e., ten dollars for regulated donors and one hundred dollars for unregulated donors).  

In determining the amount the recipient must pay to reimburse the donor, one would take the total ticket price and subtract out the charitable portion (presumably paid for by the donor).  Additionally, the recipient may subtract out the cost of items statutorily exempt from the definition of “Gift,” such as food and drink (up to fifty dollars per person if no other such benefits were received from that donor during the year) and tangible items (up to ten dollars per item up to fifty dollars per year).

Respectfully submitted,

Rosemary Giuliano

Content Last Modified on 9/7/2005 8:05:18 AM