The atmosphere was thick with politics both real and symbolic, as former Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley crossed swords this week with friends and foes alike.
If his performance at a Capitol hearing this week on ethics reform is any indication, Foley might want to go back to barking out orders to executives at NTC, his old private equity firm. I hope I’m wrong, but Gov. Dannel Malloy’s presumed chief rival for the governor’s office in 2014 might have damaged his chances for a rematch.
In blunt testimony before the Government Administration and Elections Committee, Foley blasted a system that permits those who pull the levers of power to have obvious conflicts of interest.
Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Foley’s words were surely timed to highlight what he called a “sleazy practice” — one that permits House Minority Leader Larry Cafero to be a partner of a law firm that regularly lobbies lawmakers in the Capitol. Perhaps most shockingly, the same boneheaded law permits the firm, Brown Rudnick, to lobby Cafero himself. Oh, and former House Speaker Thomas Ritter is also a partner at Brown Rudnick. The machinations recently came to light as a result of a lawsuit alleging improper lobbying by Brown Rudnick on behalf of the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.
“In most states and in Washington, D.C., a legislator could go to jail for what is regularly done and perfectly legal today in Connecticut,” said Foley, who wrote the bill and got Republican Sen. Joseph Markley of Southington to sponsor it. “That is because what is okay around our Capitol is considered a bribe in most cases.”
Then Foley asked the obvious question: “Why would anyone hire a lobbyist when you can just put a legislator on your payroll?”
Foley couldn’t have been more correct in drawing attention to the revolving door in state politics. Like the barf stain on a barroom pool table, it needs to be steam cleaned out of existence. As Foley added, “Let’s make this sleazy practice illegal here, too.”
The problem, of course, is that even if you’re only criticizing a system, lots of individual legislators will take offense, as did Republican Reps. Rosa Rebimbas of Naugatuck and David Labriola of Oxford, whose brother Jerry Labriola Jr. is the state party chairman. Rebimbas, in particular, objected to Foley’s characterization of the current system as “the fox guarding the henhouse.”
“I don’t appreciate being referred to as a hen in a ‘henhouse,’” Rebimbas bristled. “The Capitol is not a henhouse and I am not a hen.”
Rebimbas got it half right. She’s not a hen. She’s actually one of the foxes, for Rebimbas and other state lawmakers possess lupine cleverness. In all their years in power, they have managed to avoid passing legislation that would rein in this kind of abuse. Why? Perhaps it’s because they want to preserve their own employment options through maximizing their influence.
As amusing as it might have been to see his future opponent self-destruct, Malloy couldn’t have been smiling. After all, the wording of Foley’s bill might very well catch Malloy’s wife, who heads an arts council that benefits from state money. But never mind. With bipartisan indignation filling the hearing room, the legislation was dead on arrival anyway.
So Foley stepped on a lot of toes. Is that so bad? As Malloy has repeatedly demonstrated, that’s not fatal in and of itself. And Foley managed to burnish his image as Hartford outsider. But it does appear the legislators have a point when they say his proposal is too broad. It could criminalize the employment of the family members of half the General Assembly. Foley might have been wise to have grandfathered in current lawmakers. Moreover, the former ambassador to Ireland appeared unprepared to answer questions about his proposal.
Ironically, if Foley can overcome this Capitol appearance and emerge victorious for the 2014 Republican nomination over potential rivals such as Cafero, he will likely face off against Malloy, the one other Connecticut politician whose inclination is to step on every toe in the room. I don’t know who will win that contest but I can think of a good drinking game: take a shot every time Foley or Malloy offends someone.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.