Though a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week that overturned the corruption conviction of a former Virginia governor raised questions about whether state efforts to clean up its government could prove vulnerable, it appears the ruling’s focus has little direct bearing on Connecticut’s statutes.
Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said that while all Supreme Court decisions provide guidance to the states, Connecticut’s ethics code, unlike those of a number of other states, “is not modelled directly on the language of the federal statute” scrutinized by the court.
Attorney Dan Klau, a leading appellate and First Amendment attorney, called it “a very important case” that narrows the discretion of federal prosecutors seeking to bring corruption charges against elected officials. It leaves the door open for states to enact clearer, tougher laws, he said.
Still, the executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut, Cheri Quickmire, called the court’s unanimous decision disappointing and cautioned that the state should “look closely” at its own laws to make sure they’re as tough as they can be.
The decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts offered a narrow definition of what constitutes an “official act” under federal law, one that Common Cause says now “apparently permits public officials to accept gifts that most Americans would consider bribes.”
Quickmire said that officials in Washington and across the country need to engage the issue so that others won’t follow in the footsteps of ex-Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Since former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland pleaded guilty more than a decade ago to accepting gifts and services from people who secured millions of dollars in contracts and tax breaks, the state has sought to erase the “Corrupticut” image that Rowland created.
Quickmire said Rowland’s willingness to take money weakened state government, undermined “what the country thought about our state,” and dismayed voters and residents.
She said the nation doesn’t want to see other elected officials with their hands out or reaching into the pockets of contractors and others seeking public money.
Unlike McDonnell, however, Rowland’s response to the gifts he received clearly led to official acts that would have met even the new federal standard defined by the court, several experts said.
In a press release, Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn pointed out that McDonnell and his wife “accepted and concealed loans and gifts worth more than $175,000 from a diet supplement hustler who wanted the state’s help in building his business. Their haul included a $6,000 Rolex watch for the governor, a $15,000 contribution to the cost of their daughter’s wedding, a $20,000 shopping spree for Mrs. McDonnell, and expense-paid vacations and golf outings,” she said.
Connecticut attorney Ken Krayeske, former administrator of the New Haven Democracy Fund, said the decision is focused on the specifics of the McDonnell case.
“Yes, he got $175,000 in things, but it does not appear he directed the state to act in any way favorable to the interests of the person giving the bribes,” Krayeske said.
Klau said that because the facts of the McDonnell case are so atrocious, it’s clear that when “eight people of such divergent backgrounds agree” on the outcome, “you can’t write this off as a partisan decision.”
He said the justices sought to rein in prosecutors from using the anti-corruption statute “to turn anything into a felony.”
Roberts conceded in his ruling that “there is no doubt” the McDonnell case “is distasteful; it may be worse than that. But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes, and ball gowns.”
“It is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute,” Roberts said. “A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption.”
Krayeske said he wished the court had dug deeper, but prosecutors “never put any evidence of things the government” did for the person who lavished gifts on McDonnell and his wife. Put another way, “the government did not show a quid for the quo,” Krayeske said.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a prepared statement that “this narrow reading of the law will seriously impede law enforcement’s efforts to clamp down on corruption.”
“The Supreme Court essentially just told elected officials that they are free to sell access to their office to the highest bidder. If you want the government to listen to you, you had better be prepared to pay up,” Bookbinder said.
Krayeske said he doesn’t like the decision, but it doesn’t worry him like the Citizens United ruling that opened the doors to a flood of dark money into political campaigns.
He said Roberts’ “attempt to limit the prosecutor’s definition of the federal bribery statute is the nub for me.”
Rowland “didn’t go down because he met in an airplane hangar with Robert Kraft about the [proposed New England] Patriots stadium. He got convicted the first time because he took stuff and made policy,” like the construction of the $57 million, no-bid Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown.
“McDonnell took stuff, and only arranged meetings. He never made policy, and I think that is the distinction the court makes,” Krayeske said.
“I do not think Roberts is saying ‘hey, Gov. Malloy, take stuff in exchange for arranging meetings.’ I think they are saying talking to people and taking stuff from them is not the same as talking to people, taking stuff from them and giving them benefits from the government,” he said.