Friday, March 16, 2007

Rell And The Ethics Petard

How many swallows does it take to make a summer? More than one, surely. How many ethical goofs does it take to make an unethical administration? More than one.

Yet another mailing list issue is bedeviling Governor Jodi Rell’s administration, and it all seems eerily familiar: Someone on Rell’s staff procured state address lists from tourism and art officials that later were used to solicited contributions for Rell’s campaign, this in an administration that prides itself in out ethicizing its political opponents across the aisle.

Lisa Moody, Rell’s chief aide, has already got banged once by the ethical swinging door, and now it appears to be happening all over again. The precise roll played in the affair by Moody, Rell’s “Karl Rove,” is unknown at this point, but the fingerprinting squad is on the case.

Way back in August, the lists procured by Rell policy council Philip Dukes were forwarded to Moody, and before anyone could say “stick’em up,” the good people on the lists were receiving funding requests from Rell’s campaign committee.

When the issue first popped above the horizon, the governor’s office pleaded ignorance. No one was able to say how the lists were appropriated by the Rell campaign. But as state auditors and others joined in the hunt, Rell’s press secretary, Chris Cooper, this week said for the first time that the lists “could have originated from this office."

Cooper added that Rell’s staff never disputed that the lists could have been obtained by the governor’s office, and he pointed out that the lists were public information. The manner in which the names were gathered was consistent, the press secretary said, with Freedom of Information regulations, a rejoiner that gave state Democrat Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo an opportunity to coin a new word.

The issue was not that the records were “FOI-able,” DiNardo said. “The issue is why these top members of the governor's staff were gathering these address lists on state time, using state resources, to politically benefit Jodi Rell."

With DiNardo nipping at Rell’s heels, can state Rep. Chris Caruso, Chairman of the Government Administration & Elections Committee, be far behind?

Coincidentally, Speaker of the House Jim Amann was solving his ethical problem as Rell was being hoisted in the air by her petard.

On patronage matters – the mother’s milk of politics -- the Democrats have offered a token resistance to the ethical Torquemadas. “I acknowledge that you can't keep an organization together without patronage,” said turn of the century Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt. “Men ain't in politics for nothin’. They want to get somethin’ out of it”

Amann had come under fire for behavior that Plunkitt would have considered praiseworthy.

In his day job, Amann raises funds for the Greater Connecticut Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which pays him a yearly salary of $67,5oo. By tapping the shoulders of lobbyists for contributions to the charity, newspapers have said, Amann has created for himself, if not a conflict of interest, then the “appearance” of a conflict of interest. Are the lobbyists turning out their pockets for the charity because they are charitable or because they wish to curry favor with the speaker? Would they have given as avidly to, say, Mother Teresa, who is not running for office this year?

Probably not.

In any case, no doubt realizing he had wandered into an ethical bramble bush, Amann pulled the rug out from under his own feet, but was careful to let himself down gently. He vowed henceforth not to tap lobbyists for political contributions because any further disturbance in various newspapers was likely to upset the victims of multiple sclerosis. Intimations that he was engaged in corrupt activity were “a bunch of baloney.”

According to those who know him best, his staff, Amann is an upright guy, a little rough around the edges, but afflicted with a streak of kindness and bonhomie that sometimes, through the jeweler’s eye of a reporter or columnist on the hunt for dirt, looks like arrogance and Plunkittry.

This likely is true. And Rell is a fairy godmother.

But in the new age of post-modern journalism, character is easily manipulated, by the media, by blogger furiosoes, and by events over which, increasingly, politicians have little control.

When wandering through the forest of political fairytales, one can never be too careful. Boggy beasts are everywhere
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