Connecticut can’t shake corruption as leaders resist reform

 
Former Donovan campaign finance director Robert Braddock

Former Donovan campaign finance director Robert Braddock

AP Photo/David Collins

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Much more was on trial in New Haven's federal courthouse in May than Robert Braddock.

The 34-year-old political campaign journeyman from North Carolina came to Connecticut to work as finance director for former Speaker of the House Chris Donovan’s failed 2012 bid for U.S. Congress in the 5th District. He was caught in an FBI sting in which Donovan staffers agreed to swap the killing of legislation in the General Assembly for illegal campaign contributions, and ultimately was charged and convicted.

Donovan tried to paint Braddock as a rogue interloper who in no way reflected how his campaign, the speaker’s office or the Connecticut House of Representatives was run. But then Donovan’s campaign manager and longtime legislative right-hand man, Joshua Nassi, was charged. Nassi, who had stepped away from his job in the speaker’s office to run Donovan’s congressional campaign, was accused of promising to kill legislation that would have taxed the “roll your own” tobacco industry in exchange for thousands of dollars in campaign contributions he knew were being made illegally in the names of “straw” donors to skirt contribution limits and public notice requirements. The FBI had evidence that Nassi was communicating with Laura Jordan, who remained on Donovan’s legislative staff, about killing the legislation.

And it got worse for Connecticut’s political establishment writ large. In a state that has prided itself on the public financing and other campaign reforms enacted in the wake of the corruption scandal that sent former Gov. John Rowland to prison 10 years ago, it was another reminder that perhaps we aren’t so far removed, or protected, from the “Corrupticut” days.

The Braddock case showed there are buyers and sellers, as well as those willing to avert their eyes during the transaction. “The evidence disclosed during this trial revealed a disturbing scheme operated by individuals who believed that our federal campaign finance laws are meaningless, and that the legislative process can be easily corrupted with campaign contributions,” acting U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly said after Braddock was found guilty.

What about the rest of the time—all of those theoretical occasions when the FBI is not secretly recording lawmakers’ conversations? Well, Sharkey and his colleagues say that Connecticut voters should trust that most legislators have good motives. Cafero says he doesn’t believe huge reforms are needed in the legislature. “They are a pretty honest people,” he says. His comments are echoed by Aresimowicz, who says the Braddock case “should not be what the [legislature] is judged by … this is the exception.” 

This year’s legislative session, with Sharkey holding the gavel in the House, was marked by major pieces of legislation—the introduction of keno gambling in the state, for example, and exempting murder scene photos from the state’s Freedom of Information Act—that were crafted in secret and called for a vote without the customary public hearing and legislative committee-review process. After the session, the Hartford Courant also detailed a series of budget “rats” that were slipped into bigger pieces of legislation at the last moment, delivering thousands in pork barrel projects to the home districts of legislators across the state.

“Keep in mind that the person who made that assumption is a scumbag,” Sharkey says, pointedly referring to union activist-turned-FBI-informant Soucy, though never mentioning him by name. “And everybody knows him as a scumbag, and as came out in the trial, he believed that he could influence legislators and he believed that he could influence legislation in Hartford, but no one [was bought]. … If we’re going to adjust our government’s system around those kinds of behaviors, I think we’re in deeper trouble than I think even the public acknowledges. I don’t think that we should necessarily be modifying the roles of our leaders based on the perception of one particularly notorious individual with a warped perception of his own importance.”

Critics who have a problem with the lack of response to the Donovan scandal are further incensed by the General Assembly’s move to weaken campaign finance laws. On a straight party-line vote—Democrats in favor, Republicans opposed—legislators increased the amount of money that can be donated to state and local political party committees from $5,000 to $10,000 and $1,000 to $2,000, respectively. They also removed restrictions on state political parties, allowing them to spend unlimited money on behalf of individual candidates operating under the state’s publicly financed “clean elections” program and allowing that money to be spent on attack ads against their opponents.

This rollback of legislation has more to do with politicians worried about their own seats than the actual Citizens United case, according to Gary Rose, a professor and chairman of the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University. “Anytime there’s reform, or so-called reform, if you want to call it that, at the bottom line it’s really more political and partisan than some grandiose legal matter, and I think that’s really what’s at work here. It really is amusing,” Rose says. “I think there’s more self-interest involved in what we’re seeing in terms of these loopholes now being allowed by the Democrats.”

But how sacred or effective were Connecticut’s campaign finance laws to begin with? The system is a maze. What’s illegal in one spot can be legal just 10 feet away. But unlike most mazes, the rules for campaign finance have convenient sidesteps at every turn. You’ve hit a dead end for donating to your candidate? No worries. Politicians have ways of setting you down a different path. For every rule that has yet to be repealed, there’s a loophole waiting to be exploited. Before there were Super PACs, there was “bundling.”

And campaigns are rarely ever wholly separate from elected office. There’s an incestuous nature of campaign staffers rotating from campaign to elected office staff and back again. Most in Hartford haven’t gotten there without working on a campaign, and campaigning for incumbents helps them keep their own jobs. A legislative staffer can wear the hat of taxpayer-employed legislative aide in the office, then clock out and take a few steps away from the Capitol to put his or her campaign aide hat on, ready and willing to take your contribution. 

If discussion of corruption and reform has been muted in the wake of the Braddock trial, Democrats could face a minefield on the issue as the 2014 election approaches. Former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, who lost narrowly to Malloy in 2012 and is the front-runner for the Republican nomination to face him in a rematch, proposed sweeping ethics reforms earlier this year that were rejected out of hand by legislators. He will likely pick back up on the issue of corruption and criticize Malloy’s inaction as de facto leader of the Connecticut Democratic Party. It’s a good bet that Malloy will use the loosened campaign finance rules he pushed for to pay for ads answering those criticisms.

Connecticut can’t shake corruption as leaders resist reform

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