Saturday, April 19, 2008

How Democrats Killed The Ethics Bill

There were, of course, obstacles to be overcome. For obvious reasons, it was impossible to vote down the ethics legislation.

Ever since the prison door clanged shut on former Governor John Rowland, Democrats had been clamoring, as had Republicans, for ethics reform. Historically, both parties had ventured too far out on the issue to vote down necessary reforms.

The reform bill approved by the senate answered all the problems that had arisen since Rowland’s imprisonment, a blot on the escutcheon of the Republican Party that Democrats easily could exploit in campaign literature.

The bill that Amann would not permit to come to a vote would have:

1) Revoked pensions for elected officials and state and municipal employees convicted of a crime related to their employment.

2) Made the failure of reporting a bribe a class A Misdemeanor if the public servant witnessed the offer.

3) Prevented chiefs of staff in the Capitol from soliciting campaign contributions from staff members for state of municipal elections.

4) Provided mandatory ethics training for newly elected officials and refresher courses for incumbents every four years.

5) Imposed a one year restriction on employment with state contractors for state employees or officials who played a significant role in awarding a state contract.

Fashioned with Republican input and adopted by the Senate, the bill was effectively killed in the House by three people: Speaker of the House Jim Amann, the sainted extremist Chris Caruso, chairman of the legislative committee that oversees ethics, and President Pro Tem of the Senate Don William, who must have known that Amann would kill the bill; the two, who pride themselves on caucusing, are only a phone call away.

Amann vowed that the House would construct its own bill and blamed Governor Jodi Rell who had, Amann said, neglected to negotiate with Caruso.

Caruso still wants to slip into the bill a poison pill provision that would retroactively revoke the pensions of convicted officials. Retroactive punishments are inherently unconstitutional and almost certainly would not stand scrutiny by any court that still has an abiding affection for the rule of law, which holds, among other things, that persons may not be deprived of their liberty or property unless they have broken a law. Retroactive punishment penalizes actions that had been legal at the time they were committed.

The beauty of such a poison pill provision is that it shifts all political responsibility from elected lawmakers to unelected and therefore unaccountable justices. In future years, if the law studded with the retroactive poison pill is struck down by the courts, legislators will be held blameless. People will remember, if they remember anything at all, that legislators struggled to pass a bill on ethics reform. An inevitable rejection by the courts would move the legislative game back to square one, and precious time in reforming ethics will have been lost in the interim.

Amann, who has indicated he might want to run for governor on the Democrat ticket, says he has no problem with retroactivity, “and I'm surprised with some people in that building who do.”

The people who have surprised Amann probably are addicted to the rule of law, which holds a man cannot be guilty of breaking a law that did not exist when action for which he is being retroactively punished was committed.

A refresher course in the political thought of the founders might budge him from his astounding misinterpretation of the rule of law that under girds all Western laws.

In "Alice in Wonderland," the Queen of Hearts is seen to be no respecter of the rule of law: “First the verdict,” she cries, “then the trial.” Amann and Caruso dispense even with the trial and find men guilty retrospectively of having broken future laws, an improvement on tyranny that is breathtaking to behold in a man who wants to be governor.

The Republican point man in the legislature, John McKinney, said after Amann blocked the vote in the House, “The House is afraid to vote.”

“What it demonstrates to me,” said House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero, is that the Democrats “don’t want ethics reform. Based on their rhetoric of the past five years, they should have 107 votes.”

Both are right.

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