Senate Minority Leader John McKinney said Wednesday that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s trip to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, paid for by People Magazine, violated the state’s ethics laws.

The correspondents’ dinner is an annual event attended by the president as well as a host of Washington-based journalists, politicians, and celebrities. The event was held on Saturday in Washington. According to his office, Malloy was invited to this year’s dinner by People Magazine, which paid for the trip.

McKinney, a Fairfield Republican who is considering running for governor in 2014, said Malloy failed to clear the trip with the Office of State Ethics. By letting People Magazine pick up the tab, he said the governor violated the ethics law prohibiting public officials from accepting gifts in excess of $100.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Sen. McKinney (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“This thing smells. The governor’s made a mistake. He did not clear it with the ethics office before proceeding down there,” McKinney said. “. . . Clearly the cost of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is more than $100. That is not a proper gift.”

Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Malloy, said the administration did not seek an opinion from the State Ethics Office because it sought and received approval last year to attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

At the economic forum Malloy participated in three panels. The UConn Foundation paid about $4,500 to cover the governor’s costs and because Malloy was invited, he did not have to pay the $50,000 admission fee.

Like the Davos trip, Doba said Malloy was attending the correspondents’ dinner in his official capacity as governor and using the time to promote Connecticut. Doba said he spoke with outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about infrastructure projects and tried to promote the state’s digital media industry to the various media outlets in attendance.

Malloy did not participate in the correspondents’ dinner in any official capacity aside from attending the event.

Office of State Ethics Executive Director Carol Carson said the administration did not seek an opinion from her office regarding this weekend’s trip but she could not confirm or deny whether she received any complaints or if she was investigating the trip.

In a statement, Luke Bronin, the governor’s general counsel, said the administration would be seeking a formal advisory opinion from the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board.

Bronin said that past guidance from the Office of Ethics have indicated that organizations who aren’t restricted like lobbyists or other people seeking to do business with the state, can pay for travel expenses incurred by a public official attending an event that can “facilitate state action or functions.”

“Gov. Malloy’s attendance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner provided an invaluable opportunity to advance Connecticut’s interests. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a unique gathering of senior Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and business and media leaders from around the country,” he said.

McKinney said he did not see the dinner, headlined this year by late night talk show host Conan O’Brien, as a legitimate opportunity to promote Connecticut.

“The governor cannot transform a social event like this into a business meeting merely by talking up the state over champagne and hors d’oeuvres, nor can he transform this into a legitimate business trip by scheduling some brief ancillary meeting with a federal official or business group,” he said.

Even if Malloy attended the event in his capacity as governor, McKinney said he still broke the law. He said there are specific exemptions to ethics gift law, and none seemed applicable to the Washington dinner. He said Malloy’s trip to Davos was acceptable under previous ethics rulings because he participated in the forum’s panels. This time, he merely attended the correspondents’ dinner. 

“This is People Magazine for a party,” McKinney said. “. . . He was not a participant. But even under that exception, there’s an exception to the exception, which says entertainment is not covered. How can he argue that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — A, he was participating in it and B, it was not entertainment?”

Unlike the Davos trip, which the media was briefed upon well before the governor left the state, the administration did not issue an advisory before Malloy attended the correspondents’ dinner.

Asked Monday whether the public should be notified when the governor is leaving the state, Malloy deferred to Doba, who said the administration advises reporters of events where the governor is speaking or has the opportunity to be interviewed. The correspondents’ dinner fit neither category, he said.

At the Monday press conference, Malloy spoke generally about the dinner. He said he was seated with actresses from two popular television shows and attended an after party hosted by MSNBC.

Hugh McQuaid Photo
Gov. Malloy (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

“It was kind of fun,” he said.

Doba said the governor chose to accept People Magazine’s invitation rather than use taxpayer dollars to pay for the trip.

McKinney said if Malloy traveled to Washington to promote Connecticut, it would have been more appropriate under state law if he had used state money to fund it.

“If he wants to go to D.C. to meet with the secretary of transportation, he should do that and he should pay for it out of his budget,” he said. “I have not criticized him for traveling on the state dime if it’s to promote the state. This was not on the state dime, this was a gift from a corporation and that is not legal under our laws.”

McKinney said the state’s ethics laws were enacted to prevent bribes, conflicts of interests, and stop elected officials from using their office to get free services and perks.

“This is clearly an illegal use of his office for personal gain. He’s received a gift of more than $100 and he’s only received that gift because of his position as governor of the state of Connecticut,” he said.

Doba disagreed and accused McKinney of trying to score political points.

“He can argue whatever he wants but he’s obviously a candidate for governor and he has other motivations,” Doba said.

Asked about Malloy’s trip Wednesday, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said he thought it was a good thing the governor attended the dinner.

“I don’t know what the problem is, frankly, with seeing the governor active and outside the state promoting our state in a positive way. I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said.

Doba pointed out that Malloy was not the only governor in attendance. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also was there. Christie’s office did not immediately return requests for comment regarding who paid for his trip. According to news reports, the Republican governor was invited by Arianna Huffington.

According to documents obtained Wednesday from the governor’s office, People Magazine Executive Editor Elizabeth Gleick reached out to Malloy’s staff in February to see if he would be interested in attending the event.

Gleick followed up on the request with several emails to Doba explaining that the event is April 27 in Washington. She explained that “People and Time also throw a party the night before to which they would of course be invited (as would you, if that appeals. It’s a seriously fun party),” Gleick said in a Feb. 7 email.

When Malloy’s staff finally confirmed on Feb. 22, Gleick said the governor “(and I assume his wife?” are welcome to “use one of our hotel rooms at the Hilton.”