Last week was a difficult time to understand and stomach details about embattled Bridgeport, Stratford and West Haven public officials. As a researcher and teacher of state and local politics, it’s especially hard for me to explain to students why corruption reoccurs in our state. Over the years, I have offered suggestions as to how so many elected officials have become embroiled in scandals. Aside from the public and media demanding more accountability and transparency, it comes down to officials breaking laws and the public’s trust. Unless constituents demand more integrity from our officials and voters scrutinize candidates before elections, Connecticut will remain that stinging social media hashtag many of us know: #Corrupticut.
The Bridgeport and Stratford episode involved several local and state officials. Democratic State Senator Dennis Bradley and his campaign treasurer, former Bridgeport Board of Education Chair Jessica Martinez, have been charged with fraudulently obtaining public financing funds through Connecticut’s Citizen Election Program. While they were indicted on federal charges in May, the trial is scheduled for December. Former Stratford Councilwoman Tina Manus was a campaign volunteer for Bradley; she pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy in connection with the campaign scheme. Manus agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and detail the attempt to fraudulently obtain nearly $180,000 in public grants.
The more recent bombshell scandal involved West Haven’s Democratic State Rep. Michael DiMassa, who was serving in two public roles: a city council administrative assistant and an elected state official. DiMassa received federal coronavirus relief funds through a limited liability corporation and federal investigators discovered that no services were provided to West Haven. DiMassa signed off on invoices paying the company and court documents say he spent some $50,000 on Mohegan Sun casino chips. DiMassa admitted to a gambling addiction and resigned from both City Hall and General Assembly positions. The scandal also brought Connecticut’s media attention onto West Haven during municipal election season. West Haven’s mayor, Nancy Rossi, explained on YouTube how and when her administration discovered public funds being misused.
When these kinds of cases go to trial, additional political associations and details often emerge. There’s also more investigative work for state and federal investigators to complete. Enforcing state and federal laws can help address corruption since federal investigators and prosecutors often bring charges to trial. The State Elections Enforcement Commission, for example, helps investigate corruption. But this critical agency has been woefully underfunded and understaffed for years. More investigative resources are needed particularly following these scandals.
As I quickly learned in graduate school studying New Jersey’s government, corruption often goes along with state and local politics. Too many constituents overlook state and local issues and various politicians take advantage of their positions. New Jersey and Connecticut have much to do in passing more laws and recruiting suitable candidates for public office.
Beyond additional laws and investigations though, voters as well as party officials must expect more from political candidates seeking public office. We should demand more accountability and integrity. We cannot allow public officials to take advantage and have us lose faith in public service. Too many young voters are already jaded by our state and local politics and these recent scandals only add to their distrust about government. Now must be the turning point for our public officials to acknowledge they can do more to prevent political corruption.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
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