A Hartford courtroom today became the scene of an intense constitutional joust: Should state legislators have absolute power to subpoena witnesses, without fear of a judge second guessing them? Or should those witnesses be allowed to haul a politician into court so the witness can question their motives?More fallout from the legacy of John Rowland.
Klewin Building Company, the outfit that gave Rowland a lucrative consulting contract after he resigned from office, seeks to quash a subpoena issued by the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. The Democratic committee chairmen wanted to question Klewin principals at an “informational” hearing last spring about why the company hired Rowland, ostensibly in order to craft legislation addressing such deals.That’s important, because a legislative subpoena is “absolutely immune” from judicial review if it is issued in the context of gathering information for a bill, argued Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. But the committee’s real purpose had nothing to do with gathering information to write a law, countered the company’s attorney, Eliot Gersten of Hartford-based Gersten & Clifford. Instead, GAE co-chairman state Rep. Chris Caruso (D-Bridgeport) was upset about the contracts and ignored ongoing criminal investigations by state prosecutors, Gersten said, along with Klewin’s attempts to share documents with the committee and answer questions by sending a company attorney.“This representative said, ‘I don’t care about any of that. I want to know what is in their head,’” Gersten argued. The attorney then read a quote Caruso gave to a newspaper, in which the chairman said the hearings would be an opportunity for Klewin principals to “clear their names.”“Are you saying that when the legislature decides to have a hearing where the motives are to put someone in jail, or certain legislators make statements beyond the pale of what the committee is supposed to be doing, that makes it an illegal hearing?” asked Judge Samuel Freed.“I can’t say that in a blanket fashion,” Gersten replied. “What was done here is exactly that case.“Gersten squared off against Blumenthal, who articulated the GAE Committee’s case personally. Klewin should not be allowed to mount a “preemptive” strike against the legislature by challenging the subpoenas in court, Blumenthal said. Instead, the company’s principals should comply with the subpoenas and attend the GAE hearing. If they do not want to answer questions, they could assert some other constitutional right at that time, like attorney-client privilege, he said.Then, a court could examine whether that assertion is valid, Blumenthal argued, but only after the subpoenas had been satisfied. The GAE committee was clearly examining issues that fall under its legislative purview, Blumenthal argued. And if Klewin prevailed, then any witness would be allowed to haul a legislator into court and question their motives for conducting public business, he said.“That doesn’t happen in our system of government,” Blumenthal said. Freed gave no indication as to when he might rule. As part of his employment, Rowland had lobbied an official at the University of Connecticut on Klewin’s behalf, generating a storm of controversy. However, a Superior Court judge declined to issue a warrant against Rowland last month for violating the state’s revolving door statutes, via his deal with Klewin.