CEO 86-73 -- September 17, 1986
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
CLERK OF CIRCUIT COURT ATTENDING ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE WHERE MEALS AND ACTIVITIES ARE SPONSORED BY ENTITIES DOING BUSINESS WITH COUNTY GOVERNMENT
To: Mr. R. H. Hackney, Jr., Clerk of Circuit Court, Sarasota County
No prohibited conflict of interest would exist were a circuit court clerk to attend an annual conference for the Florida Association of Court Clerks where some of the meals and activities are sponsored by entities doing business with county governments. The purpose of the conference is to provide continuing education and training for the clerks attending. As stated in earlier Commission opinions, the Code of Ethics does not absolutely prohibit a public officer from accepting a gift or other thing of value from a business entity which may be doing business with his agency, and it does not prohibit a public officer from accepting hospitality within reasonable limits. Rather, whether an official may accept such a gift depends on the intent of the donor and on the circumstances under which it is given. Here, the fact that some meals and social hours are sponsored by entities doing business with county governments does not create a prohibited conflict of interest.
Would a prohibited conflict of interest exist when you, a circuit court clerk, attend an annual conference for the Florida Association of Court Clerks where some of the meals and activities are sponsored by entities doing business with county governments?
Your question is answered in the negative.
In your letter of inquiry you advise that as Clerk of Circuit Court for Sarasota County you attended the Florida Association of Court Clerks 1986 Summer Conference. Your registration fee plus per diem and transportation expenses were paid for by the County. The conference program indicates that educational sessions ran from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Most of the meals and social hours (which took place after the educational sessions and prior to dinner) were sponsored by business entities which, you advise, do business with County governments.
In a telephone conversation with our staff, you advised that the purpose of such conferences is to provide continuing education for court clerks. Section 145.051(2)(a) and (c), Florida Statutes, provides for a $2,000 special qualification salary for each clerk of the circuit court who has met certification requirements as established by the Florida Supreme Court. Once certified, each year a clerk must complete a course of continuing education as prescribed by the Supreme Court in order to be eligible for the additional salary. The Association of Court Clerks, in addition to holding annual conferences such as the one conceived presently, holds additional training sessions throughout the year in order to provide the required training as prescribed by the Supreme Court.
Your concern is that by attending the meals and social hours at the conference, you were receiving gifts from vendors doing business with your agency. The provisions of the Code of Ethics which address your concern state:
SOLICITATION OR ACCEPTANCE OF GIFTS. -- No public officer, employee of an agency, or candidate for nomination or election shall solicit or accept anything of value to the recipient, including a gift, loan, reward, promise of future employment, favor, or service, based upon any understanding that the vote, official action, or judgment of the public officer, employee, or candidate would be influenced thereby. [Section 112.313(2), Florida Statutes (1985).]
UNAUTHORIZED COMPENSATION. -- No public officer or employee of an agency or his spouse or minor child shall, at any time, accept any compensation, payment, or thing of value when such public officer or employee knows, or, with the exercise of reasonable care, should know, that it was given to influence a vote or other action in which the officer or employee was expected to participate in his official capacity. [Section 112.313(4), Florida Statutes (1985).]
CEO 75-21 involved the Florida Pollution Control Board and Florida Power and Light Company (FPLC). The Board was invited by FPLC to tour its nuclear power plants. The expenses of the tour, including meals, lodging, and transportation to and from the plants were picked up by FPLC. The Commission ruled that even though the tour would have been for educational purposes, the fact that all expenses were to be paid by a private entity subject to the Board's regulation would have made acceptance of the tour a violation of the Code of Ethics. CEO 75-22 involved the offer of a one-week trip to London to the Director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Jacksonville by General Electric Corporation. Although the trip was to be at the expense of the Director, it was sponsored by an organization with which the Department could have dealt with in the future, and nothing in the facts indicated that the purpose of the trip was anything but social. The statute addressed in these opinions, Section 112.313(2)(a), Florida Statutes (1975), subsequently was declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court and has been removed from the Code of Ethics. D'Alemberte v. Anderson, 349 So.2d 164 (Fla. 1977).
Here, the purpose of the conference was to provide continuing education to members of the Association. It seems that the majority of the conference expenses (registration fee, travel, and per diem) were paid by your agency -- the County. Therefore, we find your situation to be analogous to those presented in CEO 84-72 and CEO 85-50.
CEO 84-72 involved Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Personnel and Pesticide Review Council Members taking an educational tour of pesticide facilities. No prohibited conflict of interest was found to be created, as the purpose of the tour was educational and the majority of the tour's expenses was incurred by various state agencies. CEO 85-50 involved members and staff of the Florida High-Speed Rail Transportation Commission taking educational tours of existing rail systems and facilities at their own expense, with demonstration rides, ground transportation, and meals being provided by potential applicants. The Commission found that Section 112.313(2) did not apply to the receipt of such items, and Section 112.313(4) was not violated because of the clearly educational nature of the trip.
We stated in these two opinions that the Code of Ethics does not absolutely prohibit a public officer from accepting a gift or other thing of value from a business entity which may be doing business with his agency. Acceptance depends on the intent of the donor and on the circumstances under which it is given. Also, a public official is not prohibited from accepting hospitality within reasonable limits, such as meals or ground transportation. In our view, these interpretations would apply equally to the situation you have presented.
Accordingly, we find that no prohibited conflict of interest was created when you attended an annual conference for the Florida Association of Court Clerks and participated in meals and social hours sponsored by entities which do business with county governments.