HARTFORD, CT—The Office of State Ethics issued an informal opinion last week which said it wouldn’t be a conflict of interest for Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, to serve both as Speaker of the House and as education coordinator for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The opinion requested by Cara Passaro in the office of House Majority Leader asks if there is “any apparent ethical issues arising from his employment, including a conflict of interest with his legislative duties.”
Brian O’Dowd, an attorney with the Office of State Ethics, concluded that “there is no provision in the Code that would bar Representative Aresimowicz from holding both positions simultaneously—particularly given that his outside work for the union preceded both his election to his current term and his expected election to the position of Speaker.”
The House is expected to elect its leadership, including Aresimowicz at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4.
“Further, because the union is not a ‘business with which [Representative Aresimowicz] is associated,’ General Statutes § 1-85 prohibits him “from taking official action on union matters only if he [or his family members are] specifically affected by the legislation,” O’Dowd wrote.
That means, according to O’Dowd, that he can vote on legislation “ affecting the financial interests of . . . his employer, but may not vote on legislation that would single out the [individuals] employed by that union alone for an increase in salary.”
“In sum, there is simply nothing in the Code—nor in the more than thirty-five years of precedent interpreting it—that would bar Representative Aresimowicz from serving as Speaker while engaging in his pre-existing employment relationship with the union, or from taking official action on union matters in the absence of a direct financial impact on himself or his family members,” O’Dowd wrote.
The opinion is an informal one. If Aresimowicz wanted to pursue a formal opinion he could seek one from the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board.
In requesting the opinion, Passaro said that Aresimowicz’s job duties “include coordinating and administering educational and training programs for union officials, members and staff.”
She said his work causes him to interact with state employees who are union members for the purpose of coordinating and administering union training and educational programs. He also interacts “occasionally with non-union state employees and officials for the purpose of scheduling such programs. His duties do not involve negotiating or managing state contracts.”
Republican Party Chairman JR Romano said the opinion is a “rigid interpretation of the way the ethics rules read.” He said they should be changed.
“It’s like saying that if I played for the New York Yankees, I could vote on giving the Yankees a new stadium as long as I’m not getting the stadium,” Romano said.
This is why voters feel so disenfranchised by the political process, Romano said. He said average families not connected to state employees and their unions don’t feel like they’re being represented in Hartford.
He said the true test of Aresimowicz’s character will come when he has to decide whether to put a union contract up for a vote in the House. Typically, contracts simply go into effect in 30 days without a vote.
Last year, the labor unions dubbed the 2017 package the “austerity budget,” because it cut more than $820 million and allowed for state employee layoffs.
Aresimowicz has said that if there’s a question about his loyalty then one doesn’t need to look any further than his vote in favor of the 2017 budget.
“This budget wasn’t easy. We’re not thumping our chests saying this was a great budget,” Aresimowicz said moments before the House vote. “This is a budget that’s necessary. This is a painful budget.”
Most of the state employee unions are still in negotiations with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration over salaries and working conditions. The unions’ health and pension package doesn’t expire until 2022.
Romano also said Aresimowicz being named as speaker gives him pause for other reasons.
Back in April 2012, Aresimowicz who at the time was assistant majority leader in the House, asked an AFSCME union representative if he should try to kill legislation on behalf of donors to former House Speaker Chris Donovan’s congressional campaign. The bill ended up passing, but Aresimowicz told the union rep, who ended up having the most lenient sentence in the federal prosecution because he agreed to cooperate with the feds, that “we will fix it when Chris let’s me know.”
Earlier in the conversation, Aresimowicz was made aware that Donovan had received $10,000 for his congressional campaign from this group of roll-your-own-tobacco shop owners, who were trying to avoid being taxed as manufacturers by the state.
The text messages and phone calls were entered into evidence during the trial of Donovan’s former deputy campaign manager, Robert Braddock.
Donovan and Aresimowicz were never charged.
“Everyone needs to remember that Joe Aresimowicz was one of the key players in a scandal that led a democratic operative to go to jail,” Romano said.