Political Corruption in Connecticut: Corrupticut Abides

 
Former governor John Rowland is one in the long line of Connecticut politicians busted for corruption.

Former governor John Rowland is one in the long line of Connecticut politicians busted for corruption.

Jeff Holt

A once-popular Connecticut governor defrauds taxpayers for personal gain, resigns and goes to prison as mayors of two of the state’s biggest cities and a state senator already sit behind bars. Local government, state government, legislative, executive—everywhere you turned 10 years ago, there was news of bribes, kickbacks and corruption.

“For the record, not everyone in Connecticut is a crook,” began a March 2003 New York Times article entitled, “The Nutmeg State Battles the Stigma of Corrupticut.”

Surely backlash over the shenanigans of John Rowland, Philip Giordano, Joe Ganim and Ernie Newton would jolt Connecticut into hyper-vigilance against abuse of power and extreme scrutiny of how taxpayer dollars are managed?

Well, not so much. Few meaningful structural reforms were made in state and local government following Rowland’s exit in disgrace and the other scandals. Corruption has continued. In the meantime, the Connecticut media’s ability to expose it has weakened. Public outrage has waned and the political consequences for bad behavior lessened in an increasingly one-party state.

One wouldn’t know that from a Center for Public Integrity study last year that gave Connecticut a “B” grade and ranked it second in the nation for “transparency and accountability” of government. The study (which ranked perpetually corrupt New Jersey No. 1, so perhaps we should take it with a grain of salt), said, in part: “Once known for its smoke-filled back rooms and powerful political power-brokers, Connecticut is today a place where public spending is viewable online, campaign money is easier to track, elections are publicly financed, information is readily available and the average citizen can more easily believe that elected officials are voting in his or her, rather than special, interests.”

Since the scandals of a decade ago, Hartford joined Bridgeport and Waterbury in seeing a mayor be sentenced to prison. Eddie Perez was convicted of accepting bribes and fabricating evidence. And questions about corruption in local government haven’t been limited to the big cities. The FBI raided town hall in tiny Bridgewater last summer and carted away boxes of documents.

Perez’s successor, Pedro Segarra, is now under fire after the Hartford Courant revealed that he and his chief of staff had used city credit cards to buy caviar, alcohol and other items. An audit showed more than $30,000 in credit card purchases in a single year made without any kind of backup to prove whether they were legitimate government expenses.

Waterbury welcomed Rowland himself back into public service, but funneled taxpayer dollars to pay him a six-figure salary for economic development work through the local Chamber of Commerce. On May 8, the state’s Freedom of Information Commission ruled that the state’s Right to Know law didn’t apply to records kept by the private organization, even though it hired Rowland in response to the city committing $100,000 in direct funding for the position, and he was doing work subsequently handled via government payroll that is subject to more scrutiny. In response to a New Haven Register Freedom of Information Act request, the city of Waterbury produced no emails between Rowland and then-Mayor Michael Jarjura because, officials said, Jarjura used a private email address to conduct city business.

The public could yet end up seeing what the former governor was up to in Waterbury, though. As the newspaper was being denied requests for documents, federal law enforcement agencies were seizing them from the Greater Waterbury Chamber of Commerce office as part of a grand jury investigation into whether Rowland skirted campaign finance laws by taking money from the husband of 5th District congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley in exchange for “volunteering” for her campaign last year.

Rowland, by the way, as an ex-governor is now receiving a $50,000-a-year taxpayer-funded pension (with annual cost-of-living increases). For the rest of his life (he’s 56), Rowland also gets coverage in the state employee health insurance program, for which, according to The Register Citizen last year, he pays $29 a month—while taxpayers foot the bill for the plan’s remaining $1,900-a-month expense.

That same campaign exposed continued venality in the General Assembly, as the campaign manager and finance director of Democratic 5th District primary candidate and then-Speaker of the House Chris Donovan were arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiring with Donovan’s government staff to kill legislation in exchange for campaign donations.

Legislators aren’t allowed to receive donations from lobbyists while the General Assembly is in session, but that law doesn’t apply to legislators who are raising money for a federal office. And Donovan’s staff was caught on tape conspiring to funnel money through “straw donors” that would shield the source anyway.

No significant ethics reforms have been proposed since those arrests called into question the very integrity of the legislative process, even as the Donovan investigation recently widened to look at possible corruption in how the state approves hundreds of millions of dollars in state bonding on behalf of private organizations.

And a third candidate in that same 5th District race last year, the woman who ultimately won the election, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, is now herself under scrutiny for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from companies that her husband, Dan, regulates as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. She has returned some of them, and the Connecticut Citizens Action Group has filed a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act request scrutinizing what DEEP might be doing on behalf of these companies.

Meanwhile, back at the General Assembly, an ethics committee has ruled that there’s nothing wrong with House Minority Leader Larry Cafero working as a partner in a law firm, Brown Rudnick, that lobbies the legislature. The issue arose because Cafero was “lobbied” by his own law partner, former House Speaker Tom Ritter, on behalf of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Association, a Hartford area trash-to-energy agency that is prohibited from officially lobbying legislators. Ritter receives $7,000 a month from CRRA for being a “municipal liaison,” according to the Hartford Courant, while Brown Rudnick received another $2.8 million from the firm between 2007 and 2012. Ritter said that his work to help CRRA with legislators, including Cafero, didn’t violate the law because it was part of a “volunteer lobbying” effort unrelated to his paid work for CRRA.

Much of this news is broken by reporter Jon Lender, whose work for the Hartford Courant includes a weekly column detailing abuse of government power, from Department of Children & Families Commissioner Joette Katz’s hoarding of parking spaces to the kind of corruption and crime that have brought down politicians such as Rowland and Perez.

Lender sees no improvement in the accountability or integrity of Connecticut’s government since Rowland resigned. “There’s been some response to government scandals, such as legislation for new state contracting standards, but not enough to make you think we’ll never see major corruption in the future,” he says. “Some state and local officials still take personal advantage of their positions, and businessmen keep trying to get some benefit through somebody they know in the government. Those in charge often don’t get too upset about it unless the offending conduct is by someone in a different political party. Something bad can always happen again under the wrong circumstances with the wrong people; the world hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion.”

Connecticut needs a dozen more Jon Lenders. Instead, a shrinking press corps has its hands full keeping up with the “news of the day” out of Hartford. Few journalists are finding or taking the time away from press conferences and legislative hearings to do the kind of probing he does.

Electing a former prosecutor to hold the governor’s seat that Rowland once occupied showed initial promise. Gov. Dannel Malloy fired more than 100 state employees accused of fraudulently applying for food stamp assistance in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene. But most of them got their jobs back after unions intervened, and there’s been virtually no reporting on whether any faced criminal charges.

Malloy has assumed broad discretion in handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development incentives, including $115 million going to Bridgewater Associates, a Stamford hedge fund whose CEO is Connecticut’s wealthiest resident at a net worth of more than $2.5 billion.

At the same time, Malloy has pushed changes that could place an even bigger cloak over potential government corruption. He stripped Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission of some of its power last year, and wants to consolidate it and the state’s other independent “watchdog agencies” under one department whose director would report to the governor.

Rowland’s resignation, perhaps the darkest moment in the state’s recent political history, is almost a decade in the past. But things haven’t changed nearly enough in the ensuing years.
 

Political Corruption in Connecticut: Corrupticut Abides

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