Sunday, July 24, 2005

Lt. Governor Kevin Sullivan on the Burning Deck

It is always amusing – in a scary sort of way – to watch a politician leap from the burning deck into the icy, shark filled waters below.

Such was Lieutenant Governor Kevin Sullivan’s fate when newspapers began to report that he had planned to “host” a gala affair at the Mohegan Sun casino-hotel.

The annual meeting of the Eastern Regional Conference of the Council of State Governments is to be held this year in the post- Gov. John Rowland era, and eyes and ears were everywhere poised to discover offenses against relatively new ethical proprieties.

Since the hot-tub affair, when the former governor of Connecticut admitted publicly that he had accepted at least one favor from people doing business with the state, it had been generally assumed, especially by Democrats who began impeachment proceedings against the future felon, that the acceptance of favors from people whom politicians were in a position to reward was a “no-no.” That assumption remains operative today, even though legislation providing sanctions against this self destructive behavior now lies languishing on the draft board of the state legislature.

Sullivan, at the time, was among Rowland’s severest critics. So, imagine how surprised reporters and commentators were to discover that this paragon of political rectitude was “hosting” an affair in which services were provided free by companies that had or would have connections with prominent politicians.

Following a finding from the interim general counsel of the Office of State Ethics that the acceptance of free ferry rides from a company that last month received more than $1 million in state bonding money, Sullivan’s press spokesman leapt into action.

Sullivan had been receiving a drubbing on the Brad Davis radio show, and the press spokesman called in to point out that Sullivan was on record as having said he would not participate in proceedings deemed questionable by an ethics committee now in the process of extensive renovations.

Sullivan’s press spokesman wanted the talk show’s audience to know that his boss would not be making opening remarks at a Block Island event featuring a boat ride and reception for 15 East Coast governments scheduled to participate in the annual meeting. He had scaled down his responsibilities and would instead be participating in one of the forums. It had been an overstatement, Tapper said, to characterize Sullivan’s participation in the event as a “host.”

Shortly after Sullivan leapt from the burning deck, Connecticut’s Culinary Institute joined him in the treacherous waters of the wine dark sea.

The state legislature last month authorized millions of dollars in bonding money for the institute, which had consented to a request from one of Sullivan’s aides to provide $2,750 in free food for the Mohegan Sun gala. But after the institute discovered Sullivan had been making inquirers of the ethics committee, it withdrew its offer to provide free meals, proving that there really is no such thing as a free lunch. The institute now plans to charge the Council of State Governments $2,750 for its services.

In one news report, the institute’s director of public relations, Brooke Baran, described the relationship between the putative “host” of the event and his employer: “Kevin's office had asked for a food donation,” he said, “so we felt as though we could try to do something for them."

But for a few nosey reporters, Sullivan and the legislators he once served as President Pro Tem of the state Senate would have been much obliged.

Coming close upon the internment of several politicians of note for various improprieties, Sullivan’s lapse of ethical judgment invites comparison with Rowland’s sad fall from grace.

The differences are significant: Rowland was a governor and Sullivan, thanks to Rowland’s leave-taking, is a Lieutenant Governor, a breath away from the gubernatorial office. Rowland apologized for misleading the press, thus setting the stage for his downfall. Sullivan has issued no apology for his press secretary’s avowal that his role in the gala event fell far short of hosting it. Not to split hairs, but keynoting the event and arranging free meals for its participants are host-like activities. Rowland is in jail after having suffered the humiliations of daily press reports, a grand jury investigation, an impeachment proceeding, and a year and a day in jail. Sullivan is free as a bird. Rowland was a Republican. Sullivan is a Democrat.

Differences aside, Sullivan’s questionable ethical activities occurred after years of press exposure and prosecutions. So he cannot claim blissful ignorance as a mitigating factor – assuming anyone wishes to hold him responsible for his lapses. Ink by the barrel load was spilled during the Rowland scandal, mostly by political opponants and ill wishers in the media who wanted to see the governor in prison stripes. Sullivan will fare better. His ethical lapses will have a shelf life of less tahn a week, and many newspapers will decline to print the story.

Most political watchers are guessing that Sullivan will emerge from the shark infested waters wet but unscathed. Very likely the aide who facilitated the deal between Sullivan and the culinary institute will take the bullet on the burning deck, his hair singed and his shirt bloody, waving fondly to the struggling swimmer making his way determinedly to the shore.
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