Filing Number: 91-06
Subject: Reimbursment of Expenses
Keywords: appearance of impropriety, conflict, county fair, County Pride, donor, educational, employee, expenses, financial interests, fundraising, impropriety, joint venture, official business, public purpose, reimbursement, sponsor
Decision By: Daniel J. Anker, Ethics Commission Counsel
Contact Email: admin@nccethics.org
 
Status: Active

Question:

           Does an appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest exist where a person covered by the Code, in direct pursuit of his employment duties, receives reimbursement of expenses from a co-sponsor of a project where the non-county co-sponsor will be fully reimbursed for the costs advanced from the proceeds of the project itself?

Conclusion:

          It is the unanimous opinion of the Commission that neither an appearance of impropriety nor a conflict of interest exists under the facts presented. In reaching this conclusion, the Commission places special emphasis on the fact that the person requesting the opinion was acting solely within his job responsibilities and that, as a practical matter, though funds were initially advanced by the cosponsor, the ultimate source of payment for the costs incurred will be the event itself. Because of this latter fact, under no reasonable view of the circumstances can it be concluded that anyone received a private benefit. Indeed, one could very reasonably conclude that public confidence in government would be heightened where an event such as this can be accomplished with no strain on the public coffers.

Facts:

         New Castle County is planning a county fair to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the New Castle County government. The fair is being planned through County Pride, a non-profit corporation, in conjunction with the marketing division of the County Chamber of Commerce. In preparation therefor, the person requesting this opinion attended the Pennsylvania County Fair Convention in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in January of 1991 to learn about the planning and organizational activities for a successful fair. Also in attendance at this convention were the director of marketing for the County Chamber of Commerce and a staff member of the person requesting this opinion. The bulk of the costs were paid by the Chamber of Commerce, which totaled approximately $1,200.00.
 
          Though the co-sponsor initially paid the expenses associated with the employee's attendance at this convention, the Commission understands that the entire $1,200.00 will be reimbursed to the co-sponsor from the proceeds of the fair when held sometime in September of 1991. Ostensibly, the cosponsor has agreed to advance the $1,200.00 with the express understanding that it will be fully reimbursed from the proceeds generated from the fair.

Analysis:

          An "appearance of impropriety" is defined under Section 2-30.1 of the Ethics Code as:
 
Conduct of a County official or County employee which does not constitute a conflict of interest but which undermines the public confidence in the impartiality of a governmental body with which a County officer or employee is, or has been associated, by creating art appearance that the decisions or actions of the County official, County employee or the governmental body are influenced by factors other than the merits.
 
          A "conflict" or "conflict of interest" is defined in Section 2-30.1 of the Code as:
 
Use by a county official or county employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding county office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he is associated. Conflict or conflict of interest does not include an action having a de minimis economic impact or which effects to the same degree a class consisting of the general public or a sub-class consisting of an industry occupation or other group which includes the county official or county employee, a member of his immediate family or a business with which he or a member of his immediate family is associated.
 
          An appearance of impropriety or a conflict of interest exists if any of the elements of these terms is met under the facts presented.
 
          The person requesting this opinion is directly responsible for planning and organizing activities such as the one contemplated here. Because the nature of the planned activity is of countywide application and interest, other non-governmental groups have agreed to participate in the event under an arrangement where the co-sponsor is to advance planning and organizational expenses as incurred and is subsequently to be reimbursed from the proceeds of the event.
 
          Under no reasonable application of the facts can an appearance of impropriety be found to exist. The reimbursements made in this instance were for the purpose of planning an event which will benefit, at least potentially, all residents of New Castle County. The Commission cannot, therefore, construe these facts in any way that would undermine the public's confidence in the impartiality of a governmental body or that would create an appearance that the decisions or actions of the County or the employee are being influenced by factors other than their merits.
 
          Similarly, it is quite obvious that no conflict or conflict of interest exists. The person requesting this opinion received no pecuniary benefit for himself, a member of his immediate family, or any business with which he is associated.
 
          The Commission recognizes, however, that the co-sponsor for this event is indeed a lobbying group. Nonetheless, the co-sponsor's participation benefits New Castle County in general and does not benefit the sponsor itself or its members in any isolated or discreet manner.
 
          The Commission further notes that despite the cosponsor's active role as a lobbyist for the County, the person requesting this opinion is not involved in any aspect of County government that has been a target of the lobbying efforts of this sponsor.

Finding:

           It is the unanimous opinion of the Commission that neither an appearance of impropriety nor a conflict of interest exists under the facts presented. In reaching this conclusion, the Commission places special emphasis on the fact that the person requesting the opinion was acting solely within his job responsibilities and that, as a practical matter, though funds were initially advanced by the cosponsor, the ultimate source of payment for the costs incurred will be the event itself. Because of this latter fact, under no reasonable view of the circumstances can it be concluded that anyone received a private benefit. Indeed, one could very reasonably conclude that public confidence in government would be heightened where an event such as this can be accomplished with no strain on the public coffers.
 
          This opinion is based upon and limited to the facts and circumstances presented by the person requesting the opinion. If the person wishes to provide additional information that he believes would change the outcome of the Commission's position, he is free to do so.
 
          The Commission would like to commend the person requesting this opinion for submitting this request.
 
 
                                                                         
Daniel J. Anker
Ethics Counsel
New Castle County Ethics Commission
 
May 7, 1991