If there’s one rule in politics you can take to the bank, it’s never to behave in a way that invites comparisons to high-profile corrupt politicians who resigned in disgrace. For obvious reasons, whether the epithet is fairly or unfairly hurled, elected officials should avoid being labeled “Nixonian” or the equivalent. It’s sort of bad for your career.
But that’s precisely what Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is inviting in his latest battle to weaken the state’s leading watchdog agencies. The governor has tried this before with limited success.
Ostensibly in an effort to save money and streamline government, Malloy and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly decided in 2011 to consolidate several agencies, including three of the largest autonomous watchdog units: The Freedom of Information and Elections Enforcement commissions and the Office of State Ethics. Over Republican objections, a new super-agency was born. The Office of Government Accountability had a lofty sounding name but there was only one catch — its chief reports to the governor himself.
Now Malloy’s trying another approach: starve the beast. Ostensibly in a quest for savings to alleviate the state’s perpetual budget crisis, he wants to cut more than $180,000 from their 2017 budgets. Fair enough, you say? Shouldn’t those agencies take their lumps just as most others in state government have?
There’s only one problem. It looks like he doesn’t have authority to do it. In 2004, as the governor’s office was embroiled in a corruption scandal, Gov. John Rowland, who was under investigation by both the ethics office and SEEC, wanted to merge the watchdog agencies and slash their budgets in half. So the General Assembly passed legislation prohibiting governors from unilaterally cutting the watchdog agencies and reserving that duty for the legislature.
“It was widely viewed as an act of retribution,” Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, said of Rowland’s chicanery. “Given the dispute with SEEC, Gov. Malloy’s plan to cut watchdog budgets raises the specter of the same interpretation.”
Ouch! What’s the Connecticut equivalent of Nixonian? Rowlandian? Rowlandesque?
The dust-up Malloy had with the SEEC that Flynn spoke of could develop into a full-blown scandal. The Connecticut Democratic Party and Malloy’s 2014 re-election campaign recently paid $325,000 to the SEEC to settle a dispute over improper fundraising activities. A federal grand jury is now investigating the same fundraising claims — the same feds who nabbed Rowland and convicted him twice. Malloy said last week that he has not received a subpoena. However, given the secrecy of grand juries, we may never know what kind of evidence the panel has unless there’s an indictment.
Malloy’s actions have raised the hackles of the watchdog types. Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said the watchdog agencies are considering requesting a formal opinion on the cuts from Attorney General George Jepsen.
Meanwhile, Malloy’s people insist they’re acting within the law. Malloy budget spokesman Chris McClure says the legislature granted his boss budget-cutting or “holdback” authority, “including holdbacks to the watchdogs.” But legal scholars remain unconvinced.
“Nothing the General Assembly did last session expressly or implicitly repealed the 2004 law,” said Daniel Klau, the noted First Amendment attorney and president of the Connecticut Council of Freedom of Information. “The watchdog agencies remain subject to the legislature’s budget-cutting authority, but not the governor’s.”
In a relatively rare display of bipartisanship, both Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, and chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, condemned the governor’s gambit and suggested it was Rowlandesque.
At least two major newspaper editorial pages have condemned the move, with the middle-of-the-road Norwich Bulletin saying it’s “crucial that these agencies remain independent, and therefore insulated from the gubernatorial budget ax,” while the conservative Waterbury Republican American fumed that it was “nothing more than a disturbing power grab.”
Here’s the most baffling part of the controversy. With a legal cloud over his head, why would Malloy want to put his reputation at risk and do battle with good-government advocates, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and perhaps even Jepsen over an effort to wring $180,000 in savings out of a $20 billion budget?
If you can answer that question, the keys to Malloy’s political success will not doubt await you.