81.16

OPINION NO. 81-16

The Personnel Director in the Office of the Comptroller has requested an opinion as to whether an employee in the Office (the Employee) may accept payment of travel, meals and lodging in return for his participation as a speaker at a conference sponsored by a private commercial entity (the Firm).

The Employee works as a Data Security Officer for the Comptroller's Data Processing Division. The Firm provides maintenance and upkeep services for a software computer security system used by the Comptroller's Data Processing Division. The system permits various computer users to use the same facilities without permitting any one user to retrieve information stored by another user. The Employee helped draft the Request for Proposals for the contract under which the system was purchased. His responsibilities relating to the Firm require him to contact it if a system user is having a problem to determine if and how the problem can be solved.

The conference to which the Employee is invited is for system users that require the Firm's services and is to serve as a general information source for these users. The conference is not part of any service contract the Firm has with its users. The Employee was invited to speak because while attending a training session he demonstrated good understanding of the problems associated with implementing the system. The Employee's participation would involve a portion of the morning on one day of the 2-day conference. He proposes to attend the remainder of the conference, and his agency indicates that it believes his participation will be beneficial to it. In fact, the agency indicates that the Employee would participate in the conference on official State time, and that his office would probably fund the trip if the private funds were not available.

Section 3-106 of the Public Ethics Law (Article 40A, §3-106(a), Annotated Code of Maryland, the Ethics Law) prohibits acceptance by employees of gifts from entities that do business with their agency or entities whose financial interests can be impacted by the particular employee. The Firm does do business with the Employee's agency, and the employee is directly involved in the Firm's activities with the agency. However, subsection (b) of §3-106 sets forth exceptions to the general prohibition. Under §3-106(b)(4) an employee may accept from an entity doing business with his agency a gift of reimbursement of conference participation-related expenses if the reimbursement does not impair, tend to impair, or give the appearance of impairing the employee's impartiality and independence of judgment.1 Since the Employee's proposed participation appears to fit squarely within the exception set forth in §3-106(b)(4), his acceptance of the expenses would be allowable provided it would not be viewed as impairing or giving the appearance of impairing his impartiality and independence of judgment.

Given his agency's approval of his participation in the conference as proposed, its views as to the benefits accruing to the agency, and the fact that he would have attended at State expense in any case, we do not believe that the facts support a finding that acceptance of these expenses would impair or appear to impair the Employee's impartiality or independence of judgment. We therefore conclude that he may accept the transportation, lodging and meals offered by the Firm in connection with his participation in its conference. However, we wish to emphasize that this and other agencies should recognize the need to exercise good judgment in assuring that agency credibility and impartiality is not damaged by the relationships developed between agency employees and contractors in these travel situations. Though these matters are impacted by the Ethics Law, they are still fundamentally administrative determinations. As we noted in our Opinion No. 81-6, "supervisors, as well as officials and employees should take great care when considering whether gifts of travel will be accepted, especially where the donor has business or regulatory relationships with the employing agency."

Herbert J. Belgrad, Chairman
    Reverend John Wesley Holland
    Barbara M. Steckel

Date: April 6, 1981

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1 Section 3-106 of the Ethics Law defines a gift as the transfer of anything of economic value regardless of form without consideration.