Jordan Fenster photo
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael J. Gustafson and Financial Fraud and Public Corruption Unit Chief Christopher M. Mattei stand on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven following the sentencing of former congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley. (Jordan Fenster photo)

State lawmakers will soon debate a bill that would prevent politicians convicted of corruption from running for office after their sentences have been carried out. It’s not the first time such a measure has been considered, as U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal championed a similar bill in 2008 when he was Connecticut’s attorney general.

That bill focused on pensions and was passed, preventing any current or future lawmakers convicted on political corruption charges from receiving state pensions. It was not retroactive, and did not, as the bill currently being considered does, prevent convicted politicians from running for office.

This year has been a big one for political corruption in Connecticut. Former Gov. John Rowland was sentenced to 30 months in prison for campaign finance violations, his second corruption-related conviction. His accomplices, former congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley and her husband, Brian Foley, were sentenced to five months in prison and three months in a halfway house, respectively, for their part in the scheme to hide Rowland’s role in Wilson-Foley’s campaign.

Former Bridgeport Sen. Ernie Newton was convicted in January of violating campaign finance laws and was sentenced this month to six months in jail.

Meanwhile, former Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, who was convicted of receiving more than $500,000 in kickbacks and served almost seven years in jail, announced that he is considering a run for the mayor’s office, against current Mayor Bill Finch.

Finch has expressed his support for the proposed measure, sending a letter to the legislature Judiciary Committee in favor of before the bill was fully formed or scheduled for a public hearing.

“Others have said that it’s clearly a personal attack in order to prevent me to run,” Ganim said during a recent interview. “They’ve said they think this is a political move.”

Finch, in his letter to the Judiciary Committee, attempted to dismiss that accusation before it was made, endorsing the concept with the caveat that the disqualification measure apply “after the 2015 election cycle.”

“Tackling public corruption is about more than one person or one election,” he wrote. “And I want to ensure that there isn’t a perception that this bill is aimed at driving any one corrupt politician in particular off of the ballot.”

Regardless of whether the bill is a personal attack on him, Ganim, as a politician convicted on corruption charges, said that he is against the concept, calling it “unfortunate that anybody would like to deny individuals a second chance.”

“The drive to get the bill passed is disingenuous,” Ganim said. “To try to pass a law to ban anybody from a second chance is wrong. It’s against the entire basis of democracy. We should let the voters decide. To take the vote away from the public is wrong.”

Ganim has not yet officially announced his intention to challenge Finch, though he remains an outspoken critic of the mayor, and said he expects to file paperwork within the next couple of weeks, should he decide to make it official.

Sen. William Tong, D-Stamford, one of the drivers behind the initiative, said that while there have been efforts to revoke the pensions of politicians convicted of corruption, “I don’t recall in judiciary in my time doing a bill that would disallow them for corruption from running again.”

Tong said the will may be in the legislature to pass such an initiative, though the Judiciary Committee is by no means unanimous on the subject.

“I think people are pretty disappointed,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s the No. 1 priority on everybody’s minds, but I would say that people are embarrassed by it and want something to be done about it. What that is, I think is open to discussion.”

Tong’s co-chairman, Sen. Eric Coleman, D-Bloomfield, told the Connecticut Post recently that he is inclined to give voters the benefit of the doubt.

“Oftentimes, we don’t give voters enough credit,” he told the Post.

Tong, though, called working as a legislator “an honor and a privilege.”

“I’m not saying the somebody who’s convicted of corruption should do their time, get out and be able to make a living. But there’s a difference between making a living in whatever pursuit you choose and doing so as a public official,” he said. “The public trust is something that is incredibly important, not just to the to the integrity of the system but to our viability as a democracy.”

When it comes to pensions, Ganim and Rowland do receive a chunk of change through the state pension system, despite Blumenthal’s 2008 attempt to have them revoked. Rowland earns $4,395.73 every month through his state pension and will for all 30 months he is behind bars, for the second time. Ganim makes $13,652 annually, almost double Newton’s $7,983 annual pension.

“I wanted them to be retroactive,” Blumenthal said. “The barrier was opposition from some groups that were in favor of a more limited approach, and we achieved a lot of what we sought out to do but not all of it.”

Though he said the federal government can play a limited role in curbing public corruption in Connecticut, Blumenthal said he hopes the state’s General Assembly will see fit to strengthen the initiative he helped pass seven years ago.

“There is continuing, unfortunate, tragic public corruption in this state that in fact victimizes taxpayers and ordinary citizens who have the right to more and better government,” Blumenthal said. “My hope is that there will be greater momentum this year, from the lessons that we need to learn in the public corruption scandals and very unfortunate consequences that everybody sees.”

He added: “The great tragedy and the very regrettable lasting effect is to undermine trust and confidence in public service.”