1. Whether a County official1 may participate in an educational seminar organized and sponsored by a private business (hereinafter "Sponsor") which regularly conducts business with the County official's agency.
2. Whether that County official's agency may cosponsor the seminar with Sponsor.
1. A County official may participate in Sponsor's educational seminar without violating the Ethics Code.
2. However, the County official's agency may not cosponsor the seminar with Sponsor as this would result in an appearance of impropriety.
1. Official's participation in seminar is permissible.
The County official has been invited to speak at a seminar organized and sponsored by Sponsor, a private business which regularly conducts business with the County official's agency. The Sponsor is not a vendor of goods or services. Rather, the Sponsor uses the agency to file, process and research legal records on behalf of private citizens, pursuant to specific procedures and requirements established by law. The seminar is designed to educate attendees regarding the legal process which the County official's agency administers.
The Commission has ruled previously that an official or employee may participate in such an educational seminar without violating the Ethics Code.2 Indeed, the public is well served by the official's participation in such educational endeavors.
2. Agency's cosponsoring seminar is impermissible.
The County official's agency's cosponsoring of the seminar with Sponsor would create an appearance of impropriety however.3
As stated, the Sponsor conducts business with the County agency on a regular basis. It is one of several other businesses - its competitors - which must utilize the County agency in the same manner - for the filing, processing and researching of legal records on behalf of private citizens.
The agency's cosponsoring of a seminar with one of the several private entities which must conduct business with the agency creates the appearance of a cozy relationship between the Sponsor and the agency, thereby enhancing Sponsor's public image. This appearance would engender in the public a perception that the agency favors Sponsor over its competitors or officially sanctions Sponsor's activities. That the agency would not favor the Sponsor or exercise its authority to the special benefit of the Sponsor is assumed. But the appearance to the public is that the agency's official actions are subject to influence by factors other than the merits, - hence the appearance of impropriety.
For these reasons, while the official is encouraged to participate in the Sponsor's seminar, the agency is advised not to lend its official imprimatur to Sponsor by cosponsoring the seminar.
L. Susan Faw, Ethics Counsel
November 7, 1995
1 This advisory opinion has been requested by a County official. It applies equally however to county employees covered by the New Castle County Ethics Code. For purposes of the Code, a "county employee" is "[a]n individual employed by the county who is responsible for taking or recommending official action of a non-ministerial nature with regard to: (1) contracting or procurement; (2) administering or monitoring grants or subsidies; (3) planning or zoning; (4) inspecting, licensing, regulating or auditing any person; or (5) any other activity where the official action has an economic impact of greater than [$500] on the interests of any person."
2 In Advisory Opinion 94-03, the Commission ruled that a County employee may participate in an educational seminar and accept an honorarium from the sponsoring organization, - which had no business dealings with the County. Here, the official has not been offered an honorarium and thus, the issue of the propriety of accepting an honorarium from a private entity which conducts business with the agency has not been raised.
3 Section 2-30.2(g) states: "County officials or county employees shall avoid an appearance of impropriety." An "appearance of impropriety" is "[t]he conduct of a county official or county employee which does not constitute a conflict of interest but which undermines public confidence in the impartiality of a governmental body with which a county officer or employee is or has been associated by creating the appearance that the decisions or actions of the county official, county employee or the governmental body are influenced by factors other than the merits." Section 2.30.1 Definitions.