It has been said before that the scandal isn’t what’s illegal. It’s what’s legal. Observers of Connecticut politics were reminded of that nifty maxim last week after a series of articles in the Courant documenting the unholy nexus between lawmakers, law firms, and lobbyists.
The crooked alliance between influence peddlers and public officials is nothing new, of course. Hired guns have been seeking clout in the seats of power as long as governments have existed. Nature abhors a vacuum, lobbyists are eager to fill the gulf between lawmakers and their constituents and few states can match Connecticut’s reputation for political corruption. But even by those low standards, it’s hard to accept the state of influence peddling in Connecticut.
The current imbroglio seems to have been ignited by Matt Hennessy, a political strategist and former chief of staff to Eddie Perez, the felonious ex-mayor of Hartford. In a lawsuit, Hennessy alleges that his firm failed to win a consulting gig with the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, the quasi-public garbage authority, because of special treatment given to the powerhouse Hartford firm of Brown Rudnick. Hennessy also charges that Brown Rudnick partner Thomas Ritter, a former speaker of the Connecticut House of Representatives, violated laws prohibiting outside lobbying on behalf of quasi-public agencies such as CRRA.
According to Courant columnist Kevin Rennie, while the law does not permit Ritter to lobby on behalf of CRRA, it does allow him to act as “municipal liaison” — whatever that means. However, Ritter may actively lobby on behalf of CRRA if he receives no compensation for doing so. Got that?
What a ludicrous law. You can lobby on behalf of a client if you don’t actually bill the client for the time spent lobbying? Ritter can walk the half dozen blocks from his office to the Capitol and cajole lawmakers into favoring his clients so long as he doesn’t include that activity on his monthly invoice?
Perhaps I’m naive, but that really strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Brown Rudnick is being paid handsomely to represent CRRA, so a few hours of uncompensated lobbying is time well spent if it puts the firm in a better position during negotiations for a lucrative contract renewal with CRRA. For government relations and legal work, Brown Rudnick has billed CRRA $2.8 million since 2007. Moreover, what’s to prevent Brown Rudnick from fudging the billing and saying Ritter wasn’t lobbying when he really was? The answer, apparently, is nothing.
But most shocking is that one of Brown Rudnick’s attorneys is Larry Cafero, minority leader of the state House of Representatives. For the record, he denies doing any lobbying for CRRA. But according to Rennie, Brown Rudnick is allowed to lobby Cafero. And as minority leader, Cafero has the authority to appoint two members of CRRA’s 11-person board of directors.
Talk about a circular flow chart! Sounds more like the well-oiled machinations of a tinpot dictatorship than a system of accountability in one of the most progressive states in the nation.
As weak as our state’s lobbying laws are, it looks like they’re even worse in many other states, according to the Center For Public Integrity, which rated Connecticut a B overall in a series of metrics involving lobbying disclosure. And the state received an A in the area of ethics enforcement.
Still, with holes like this, we obviously have miles to go and promises to keep. One of the problems with enacting better laws is as clear as the gold dome atop the Capitol. Lawmakers are reluctant to close the revolving doors between their offices and the lobbying firms because they might want to peddle influence themselves one day after they leave the General Assembly.
So the only way stronger laws will see the light of day is if the voters make it clear that the status quo is unacceptable. But beyond journalists and a relative handful of clean-government advocates, who really cares?
Maybe it will take another disaster to spur the General Assembly and Gov. Dannel Malloy into action. After all, it took CRRA’s disastrous $220 million loss to Enron, the collapsed energy-trading giant, to prod the legislature into banning outside lobbying for quasi-public agencies in 2002. That scandal prompted a wave of lawsuits from CRRA member towns and others over proposed fee increases that the garbage authority wanted to impose to recover its Enron losses. Most of the money CRRA lost was eventually recovered from the sale of the bankruptcy decision.
So that’s what it’s come to for us good-government types? Hoping for a catastrophe that will shame lethargic lawmakers into action? It would be funny if there wasn’t so much at stake.