House Speaker Brendan Sharkey supports them. Senate President Martin Looney is ready to discuss the details. Highway tolls could return to Connecticut as one way to fund Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s ambitious plan to invest in transportation infrastructure in his second term.
But the role of one of Connecticut’s newest registered lobbyists is raising questions about how such decisions are made.
Tolls are close enough to happening, apparently, that an out-of-state company is paying $60,000 to influence state government leaders in hopes of eventually winning a contract for some of the work in building the infrastructure around them.
The company has hired Roy Occhiogrosso, a Malloy confidant, former senior administration adviser and architect of the governor’s election and re-election.
Occhiogrosso recently registered as a lobbyist for HNTB Corp. of Kansas City, which has built and operated toll systems in other states.
He also registered as a lobbyist for Tenet Healthcare Corp., just as Malloy was getting involved in possibly salvaging and negotiating state conditions on the company’s scuttled acquisition of nonprofit hospitals in Waterbury, Bristol, Vernon and Manchester.
Similarly, legislative action on tolls will likely hinge on the specifics of Malloy’s emerging transportation plan.
Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia would not comment on whether Occhiogrosso has had conversations with the governor or members of his administration on Tenet or tolls, saying only that, “We don’t control nor do we comment on who lobbies for who in the entire state of Connecticut.”
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the state’s chapter of Common Cause, said Occhiogrosso is following “the letter of the law” in Connecticut, which prohibits state officials from lobbying for one year. He left his official position in state government two years ago, and the law doesn’t apply to campaign consultants.
But the timing of Occhiogrosso’s lobbying contracts on issues before the governor “does seem a little more than coincidental,” she said.
Former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who lost a Republican primary bid for governor last year, believes state law should be strengthened to stop the “revolving door” of lobbyists and government officials.
He supports lengthening the one-year ban on lobbying, and clarifying restrictions that should apply to former high-level administration officials such as Occhiogrosso.
“The appearance is not right, even if you don’t get to whether something is really wrong,” McKinney said. “It doesn’t look right. It doesn’t give people, especially with the history we’ve had in Connecticut, [the assurance] that everything is being done fairly.”
In this case, McKinney feels Occhiogrosso’s lobbying could lead to bad public policy. Commuters in Fairfield County call border tolls “inherently unfair,” and McKinney said “congestion pricing” tolls would just shift traffic to Route 1 and side roads, straining local police departments and harming merchants.
And in broader terms, McKinney said he was “disappointed” that Malloy has made the widening of Interstate 95 a centerpiece of his transportation plan.
Connecticut should be focusing on building a “first-class public transportation system” that gets people off roads. “It’s too early to talk about tolls,” he said. “We should be focusing on getting people from New Haven to New York city 30 minutes faster than they are now.”
Adam Joseph, a spokesman for Senate President Martin Looney, said that consideration of tolls in the General Assembly will be “entirely dependent on what the governor says next week.”
He said Looney, who worked in a toll booth in West Haven as a college student, has a “nuanced” view on tolls and is ready to sit down and talk about specifics.
House Speaker Sharkey has said Connecticut lawmakers “(have) to adopt tolls” in order to spread the burden to out-of-state motorists and take pressure of the state’s gas tax.
Jerry Labriola, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party, said that Occhiogrosso’s lobbying “is just another example of state government of insiders, by insiders, and for insiders.”
But McKinney and Quickmire agreed that “it’s been going on for a long time,” and there are numerous Republican and Democratic examples of former lawmakers and government officials quickly making money lobbying for special interests, including former House Speakers Tom Ritter and Jim Amann.
Tanya Meck, a managing director of Global Strategies, Occhiogrosso’s firm, said that Connecticut’s laws require disclosure on a wide range of activities that could be construed as “lobbying.”
“We’re a communications firm,” she said. “That said, Connecticut has some of the strictest ethics laws in the nation, and because we do communications work in the public affairs space, we are sometimes required to register on behalf of individual clients. This is a good thing and allows for accountability and complete transparency.”
Unlike many who’ve parlayed government offices into lobbying or paid public affairs work, Occhiogrosso is returning to a job he did for years before helping Malloy get elected.
Puglia said there are no plans to bring Occhiogrosso back into a government job in Malloy’s second term.