Amid a hiring scandal that led to the retirement Wednesday of Chief State’s Attorney Richard J. Colangelo Jr., the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut is calling again for greater prosecutorial accountability and a more independent Criminal Justice Commission which has the power to hire and fire prosecutors.
After a similar bill failed to gain traction last year, the organization has met with the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee and expects to submit proposed legislation for consideration in the coming days, said Claudine Fox, public policy and advocacy director for the CT ACLU.
“What we’ve seen happen in the past week is a product of when an agency like the Division of Criminal Justice is allowed to operate in the dark,” Fox said.
As part of their proposal, the CT ACLU also wants a mandated prosecutorial ethics policy in line with national policies and professional standards, and data-based performance evaluations for state’s attorneys that are available to the public.
The Chief State’s Attorney who heads the state’s Division of Criminal Justice has been under intense scrutiny since Hartford Courant Columnist Kevin Rennie pointed out in an Oct. 1 piece that Colangelo hired the daughter of state Office of Policy and Management Deputy Commissioner Kosta Diamantis as he was seeking raises for himself and other prosecutors from the agency.
Colangelo said in one email to Kosta Diamantis that he had to keep the 13 state’s attorneys happy so they wouldn’t buck his reappointment, according to documents provided with a report released Feb. 2 on the findings of an independent investigation into the hiring controversy.
“The fact that even the most powerful prosecutor in the state could see his reappointment as dependent on a popularity contest amongst other prosecutors, and the means to reappointment being greasing their palms, show’s how much Connecticut’s top prosecutors are left to their own devices,” Fox said in a statement issued Wednesday after Colangelo announced his retirement which will be effective March 31.
Former U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, who was hired to conduct the investigation concluded that Kosta Diamantis and Colangelo, provided fuzzy information on the timing of when the chief state’s attorney and his future hire first met and that the two officials and OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw met the day before the Oct. 1 article was published to revise their stance that the raises would only be employees of the division moving forward and not for existing employees.
On the same day the report was released, Lamont’s office released documents related to a subpoena issued by the federal Department of Justice seeking all documents related to Kosta Diamantis’ role in OPM’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review which he headed. Kosta Diamantis retired after being placed on paid administrative leave in late October.
Members of the Criminal Justice Commission revealed after a one-hour meeting Wednesday that Colangelo had retired before the body started proceedings that would have likely led to his termination.
The Commission has the power to place deputy chief state’s attorneys and state’s attorneys on suspension without pay and demote after notice and due process, Fox said.
The commission can also terminate deputy chief state’s attorneys and state attorneys. When it comes to chief state’s attorneys, the commission can appoint or terminate after a process that has never been invoked. But the commission cannot discipline or place a chief state’s attorney on unpaid suspension, Fox said.
The CT ACLU’s updated prosecutorial accountability law proposes wider independence for the commission by taking its administrative functions from the Division of Criminal Justice and making it a stand-alone body within the executive branch, giving the commission the power to discipline and suspend chief state’s attorneys and making sure the commission has adequate funding to conduct investigations and appoint state’s attorneys.
“Their operating budget is abysmal,” Fox said. “They can’t do any meaningful independent investigations and aren’t meaningfully independent in their resources from the Division of Criminal Justice.”
The new version of the bill also calls for the same data collection required by prosecutors from the newly formed Office of the Inspector General which investigates deadly use of police force incidents and in-custody deaths.
A prosecutorial accountability law passed in 2019 required the Division of Criminal Justice and OPM’s Criminal Justice arm to collect demographic data on arrests and sentencing by 2021 to issue reports to the legislature.
The CT ACLU also wants the commission to evaluate the performance of state’s attorney’s every two years based on data already being collected, additional training for prosecutors on racial bias, collateral consequences, sentencing alternatives, mental illness, trauma and re-entry after prison and a comprehensive review by a task force to analyze criminal justice systems to make sure that uniform policies are followed.
The 2022 bill is also again proposing narrowing the re-appointment timeframe for prosecutors from eight years to five years.
Colangelo, other prosecutors and the state Office of the Chief Public Defender widely panned the bill proposed in 2021 saying it would hamper state’s attorneys from using discretion in sentencing and make appointments and the commission more political.
While the CT ACLU has been supporting more prosecutorial accountability and transparency for years, the bill suddenly has taken on new significance with the investigation into the chief state’s attorney, said Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven.
“We’re in the process of considering things,” Winfield said. “That will obviously be considered. I think this takes on a different level of importance and we at least need to have that conversation.”