Sunday, August 23, 2009

R.I. Ethics Commission Explains Rules Against Nepotism

By Randal Edgar

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Islands’ rules on nepotism underwent a major revision two years ago. Standards that had long applied to married couples were expanded to include household members. People who obtained a job or promotion through the influence of a relative or household member could now be prosecuted.

But not until last week did the Ethics Commission issue what is known as a general advisory on the new rules — an easy-to-understand explanation of the rules that provides examples of the sorts of activities that are not allowed, or allowed.

The advisory makes it clear that personal relationships and influence over money, budgets, contracts, jobs and promotions can be a dangerous mix.

One example: A member of a town council that votes on zoning board appointments cannot take part in the nomination or appointment of his cousin-in-law to the zoning board.

Another example: A school board member whose step-brother is a member of a local union cannot participate in contract negotiations with that union.

Sometimes the examples allow involvement, to a point.

A city council member whose live-in domestic partner is a city employee and union member cannot participate in contract negotiations with that union but can vote to approve the negotiated contract as a whole, according to the advisory.

Katherine D’Arezzo, the commission’s senior lawyer, said the advisory is intended to answer questions the commission hears on a regular basis.

“They’re the questions we see all the time, so we try to spell it out a little bit more in depth than just a reading of the code would give you,” she said.

The 2007 code specifies which relationships are covered by the state’s ethics rules. The list reaches as far as step-sons-in-law and granddaughters-in-law and step-uncles and step-first cousins, in addition to adding the broad category of household members.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said the only relation that he sees missing is that of a spouse’s sibling’s spouse.

“We thought that they should amend the regulation to extend the definition, but that’s a bit picky,” he said.

The commission is also reviewing a general advisory on public officials and actions affecting their pay and benefits. That advisory will be before the board again next month, where it needs a second vote of approval to be issued, said Jason Gramitt, a commission staff attorney.

While many of the examples in the general advisory on nepotism seem straightforward, some are not so clear cut.

In the case of a city council member whose spouse is a unionized parks employee, the council member must request an advisory opinion before voting on a proposal to provide life insurance for all parks employees. If all parks employees would be similarly affected, the commission “could issue an advisory opinion allowing” the council member’s participation, the general advisory states.

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