Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ethics Reform and Window Dressing

The precipitating cause behind attempts by Democrats and Republicans to reform ethics in Connecticut is, ironically, former Gov. John G. Rowland. One wag has suggested that when Rowland’s name is removed from a public building at UConn, it should be re-attached to Gov. Jodi Rell’s ethics legislation.

At the end of December Rowland pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy "to deprive Connecticut citizens of the honest services of its officials." Rowland confessed to taking more than $100,000 in gifts and favors from two Connecticut companies.

The scale of corruption within the Rowland administration, corresponding to the scale of the investigations the corruption unleashed, certainly is unusual. But the contributing causes are no strangers to politics watchers.

Within the living memory of most Connecticut journalists, lobbyists have frequently made political contributions to politicians whose initiatives might have been helpful to their clients, and contractors doing business with the government have given money or gifts to favored politicians, usually through intermediaries. And it had not been unusual for politicians to share their largess with friends and business associates.

To take but one example among many: When Attorney General Richard Blumenthal had Connecticut join the national lawsuit against the tobacco companies, he assigned much of the lucrative business to his former law partner, who no doubt was appreciative.

The whopping settlement of the case, $3.6 billion, provided that $65 million in legal fees should be divided among three law firms: a Philadelphia firm; the Waterbury firm that long had represented Rowland, Carmody & Torrance; and the firm of Blumenthal’s own former law partner.

Though Blumenthal’s Republican challenger at the time, Martha Dean, vociferously objected to the practice -- not, unfortunately, on the grounds that the attorney general had deprived Connecticut citizens of the honest services of its officials -- her protests were not championed by a news media crusading for honesty in government, and few reporters and commentators who took after Rowland with such relish mussed a hair on Blumenthal’s head.

The ethics reforms now proposed by Governor Rell might have been advanced any time in the last half century. The adoption of such reforms this year has been made possible because Rowland was caught with his finger in the political pie, which is not to say that other politicians in past times had not done the same. The same scrutiny had not been brought to bear against them, and the time was ripe for change last year.

The reforms proposed by Rell are tailored to answer the corruption of Rowland's and future administrations. Rell has proposed that political contributions from lobbyists or their political action committees should be banned. Under her reforms, individuals and companies that do business with the state would be prohibited from making political contributions; the electronic filing of campaign finance reports would be broadened to include state legislators and the filing threshold would be lowered from $250,000 to $35,000; a loophole in employment "revolving door" and gift statutes would be closed; the exemption that permits lobbyists and contractors to wine and dine state employees and public officials would be eliminated; and the governor’s spouse would become subject to state ethics laws.

But these reforms, according to Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., are "window dressing."

Williams will preside over a legislature in which Democrats have a nearly veto-proof majority. The new Senate president has not said whether he will encourage his faithful troops to vote against the "window dressing," but he and other leading Democrats have their eyes fixed on their prize, which is public financing of election campaigns.

In fact, the reforms proposed by Rell and the Republicans cut to the heart of corruption. In the absence of the reforms the new governor has proposed, public financing alone would not prevent politicians from putting the squeeze on state contractors and employees. If anything, the "window dressing" should be expanded to apply to municipal government as well.

But public financing would expand the advantages Connecticut Democrats enjoy -- which is why, come to think of it, Democrats are so attached to the idea. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to do the math. Since Democrats are more numerous than Republicans in Connecticut, it stands to reason that any plan to check off political contributions against tax payments would benefit Democrats.

Williams has not outlined his proposal for public financing, but most public financing proposals involve the following elements: ballot access requirements; eligibility thresholds for funding; an agreement by candidates not to raise or spend private money during primaries and general elections; the award of set amounts to candidates; and, to assure a level playing field, matching funds for candidates who have been outspent by opponents who are privately financed or have been targeted by independent groups.

The ghostly Democratic "proposal" for public financing of campaigns has no flesh on it and is, at this point, little more than a rhetorical incantation or ... how to put this? ... window dressing.
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