(Clarified 4:02 p.m.) Eight years ago following the loss of $220 million to Enron Corp., the General Assembly decided the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority couldn’t hire outside lobbyists to lobby state officials. But a recent contract extension for a “municipal liaison” position has raised questions, again, about quasi-public agency’s activities.
The municipal liaison contract initially went out to bid in May before being pulled from the board’s agenda in September after CRRA officials discovered it had one more year left on the current contract.
That contract belongs to Brown Rudnick LLP, where the position of municipal liaison is held by former Speaker of the House Thomas Ritter. Ritter and his lobbying/law firm, which also holds legal contracts with CRRA, was expected to be awarded the three-year municipal liaison contract again if the item hadn’t been pulled from the agenda. The only other firm to bid on the $84,000 contract was Tremont Public Advisors LLC, a company run by Matthew Hennessy, former chief of staff of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez.
West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka is a new member of CRRA’s board, and he says he is concerned that even having a municipal liaison contract may violate the spirit of the 2003 law.
A municipal liaison, according to the scope of services in the RFP, is expected to provide CRRA with insight and outreach to its member towns, but Slifka is concerned that allowing a registered state lobbyist to hold the contract may blur the line.
“Frankly, I have serious reservations about the potential conflict of this RFP with the statutory ban on CRRA hiring lobbyists effective Jan. 1, 2003 (Public Act 02-46, I believe),” Slifka wrote CRRA President Thomas Kirk on Sept. 19 — 10 days before the last board meeting.
The item was pulled from the agenda on Sept. 29, after CRRA says it was discovered there was still a year left on the current contract.
“It was a paperwork screw up,” says Paul Nonnenmacher, spokesman for CRRA. “To be honest, the gentleman handling the contract retired this summer and was making sure everything got tied up before he left.”
Kirk says the CRRA had created a job description for the liaison that should avoid conflict with the law.
“Regarding the statute prohibiting CRRA from having a lobbyist, the board has historically shared your concern and insistence that CRRA stay far away from the line between legislative liaison and lobbying,” Kirk replied to Slifka on Sept. 19. “This particular contract RFP has in the past attracted lobbyists to bid, but it is specifically designed to be a liaison with the towns/cities, and the contractor is prohibited from working the legislature or governor’s office.”
Asked to describe the services he provides CRRA as its municipal liaison, “I do whatever they ask me to do,” Ritter said last week in a phone interview. “I don’t lobby and I don’t believe anyone ever suggested I do. The contract I signed two years ago says I cannot lobby.”
Ritter is a registered state lobbyist, but he said he doesn’t believe anyone ever accused him of lobbying in his capacity as CRRA’s municipal liaison.
However, there are emails from the end of the legislative session in June that show Ritter contacted the Attorney General’s office regarding the appointment of new members to the board by legislative leaders . Further, the emails show Ritter offered to draft language to amend legislation concerning the appointment of members to CRRA’s board.
The legislation died on the Senate calendar, but the June 1 email seems to show how close the line is between lobbying and municipal liaison.
Kirk said Ritter can’t communicate with the legislature because that’s getting “too close to the line of lobbying. The same goes for the Attorney General.”
Despite this statement, the string of emails shows Ritter on one occasion reached out to Nora Dannehy, deputy attorney general to get clarification on the appointment of a member of CRRA’s board.
“Nora Danahy [sic] called me this morning,” Ritter wrote in a June 13 email. “While they don’t offer legal opinions to quasi-state agencies. I explained that this was more a review of legislative action. She wants to be helpful and will get back to me shortly after she does a bit more review.”
The email string between Ritter and members of CRRA’s administration and board asks for her opinion in the matter.
In an effort to clear up the municipal liaison situation and fend off questions from the losing bidders firm, CRRA’s legal counsel, Laurie Hunt, asked the Office of State Ethics to weigh in on the matter more than a week ago.
In the letter Hunt asks two questions:
“Does the prohibition preclude the Authority from contracting for legal services with a law firm which provides lobbying services to other clients (but not to the Authority)?” and “Does the prohibition preclude the Authority from contracting for Municipal Services with a law firm which provides lobbying services to other clients (but not to the Authority)?”
The Office of State Ethics is expected to issue an opinion shortly.
But even if the office finds CRRA is in violation of the statute, the law doesn’t include any enforcement provisions, so it’s difficult to know what, if anything, will happen next.