Here is the lede graph of a story, Ethics opinion: Aresimowicz can be House Speaker, union staffer, found in CTMirror: “The Office of State Ethics has advised Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, that nothing in the state ethics code bars him from continuing his job as education coordinator with AFSCME, an influential public-employee union, once he becomes Speaker of the House of Representatives.”
The Office of State Ethics (OSE) decision was in reply to a query put to it by the Office of the House Majority Leader: “… let us know whether there are any apparent ethical issues arising from his [Aresimowicz’s] employment, including a conflict of interest with his legislative duties? If there are any further actions that Rep. Aresimowicz should take to protect himself from ethical concerns, we would appreciate that advice.”
Righto. The OSE knows very well, as do all legislators, that the Speaker of the House in Connecticut is not merely an equal legislator among equals; the Speaker is a gatekeeper who may determine whether legislation lives or dies. His job is comparable to that of a guard protecting a hen-house from unwanted intrusions by hungry foxes.
So then, the OSE confronts the following circumstances: A fox's representative approaches the OSE and asks if it would be ethical for the fox to be selected by his peers to guard a hen-house against unwanted intruders. And the OSE disgorges the following opinion: “There is nothing in the state ethics code that bars [soon to be] Speaker of The House Joe Aresimowicz from continuing his job as education coordinator with AFSCME, an influential public-employee union, once he becomes speaker of the House of Representatives.”
The question before the house is not: Does present law permit an education coordinator with AFSCME to assume a position in the House that allows him to put the kibosh on legislation that could be unfavorable to union organizations? The OSE already has determined that present law does not prevent the selection of a fox as a gatekeeper to the hen-house.
The more important question is: Does the OSE’s judgement on this matter have anything remotely to do with ethics? If the staff of the OSE is concerned only with legal advisement, the state of Connecticut could save a good deal of money by abolishing the office and assigning its functions to one of the hundreds of lawyers in Attorney General George Jepsen’s office.
No member of the OSE who unquestioningly accepts the proposition “all things lawful are ethical” or its corollary “all things ethical are lawful” should be allowed to serve on a body that proscribes unethical behavior.
We all remember Mr. Bumble’s discomfort when he is told by a court in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist that the law supposes that your wife, an unusually domineering lady, acts under your direction. “’If the law supposes that,’ said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, ‘the law is a ass - a idiot.’"
Apparently, there is not a sufficient number of Bumbles in the General Assembly – no one to protest that if the OSE thinks it is ethical to allow Mr. Aresimowicz “to continuing his job as education coordinator with AFSCME, an influential public-employee union, once he becomes speaker of the House of Representatives,” then, sir, the OSE “is a ass - a idiot.”
A prior Democratic Speaker of the House, Chris Donovan, run out of office owing to the ethical lapses of people on his staff, was employed “by an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union representing community college employees while he was majority leader, but he resigned from the union after becoming Speaker in January 2009,” according to the CTMirror story.
Mr. Donovan noted at the time, “I’d be more in the limelight, and my opponents would use my job as a reason to put into the public eye questions about my motivations.”
Mr. Donovan bowed to political considerations, but he might as easily have bowed to ethical obligations. If Mr. Aresimowicz is installed as Speaker of the House on January 4th, as seems likely, will his opponents “use his union job as a reason to put into the public eye” questions concerning his motivations? The OSE already has weighed in on the question and determined that ethical motivations apparently fall outside the purview of the state’s ethical watchdogs.
Everyone else, including legislators, should be concerned with the ethical propriety of appointing to an office that screens legislation someone employed by a union who may be able to turn aside measures adversely affecting unions – such as, for instance, legislation that may impact union friendly contracts and pension obligations.
Just as the law is too important a matter to leave solely in the hands of lawyers and lawyer-legislators, so ethics is too important a matter to leave entirely to the discretion of lawyers working for the state’s misnamed Office of State Ethics.