Saturday, October 12, 2013

Politics By Any Other Name

It was bound to happen sooner or later. In Hartford, Connecticut, a one party town for decades, political favoritism has raised its ugly head – not for the first or last time.

Mayor of Hartford Pedro Segarra and Hartford school officials, we learn from a stinging editorial in a Hartford newspaper, “are dead right in asking city auditors to clear the air on whether city Treasurer Adam Cloud had a conflict of interest in allegedly moving a city insurance policy from one broker to another one, Hybrid Insurance Group.”

The connections between Hartford’s Treasurer, Mr. Cloud, and the insurance group that was awarded a substantial account are, the paper finds, unsavory: “Hybrid is a tenant in a downtown Hartford building owned by Mr. Cloud and family members. Also, treasurer Cloud's brother, Christopher Cloud, is a lobbyist for Hybrid.”

Hartford’s “sharp-eyed chief financial officer,” Paula Altieri, discovered that the insurance policy had been transferred from one broker to the other “without the need to compete” and, in the process, a tidy sum of almost $670,000 had been wired to Hybrid by Mr. Cloud’s office “to cover overdue insurance policy premiums that the broker pays on behalf of the city and school district.”

No one is quite certain at this point where the money is. An audit is necessary to clear up any possible irregularities. “The loose threads of this shocking story,” the editorial concludes, “need to be tied up, and pronto.”

There are both differences and similarities between this “shocking story” – the loose threads of which “need to be tied up, and pronto” – and charges made earlier by Republican Party gubernatorial hopeful  Tom Foley that Connecticut’s Governor Dannel Malloy had winked at a prearranged deal in which Global Strategy had received a tax funded contract.

Mr. Occhiogrosso, awarded with a Vice Presidency of Global Strategy after he had left Mr. Malloy’s service as the governor’s chief flack catcher, said at the time that the contract had been put out to bid, putting to bed all spurious charges of preferred treatment. On Mr. Occhigrosso’s word, most newspaper editorial boards assumed, moments after Mr. Foley had pointed a crooked finger at the deal, that Global Strategy won the bidding contest fairly. Mr. Foley’s wildly romantic view of politics, it was thought,  had unfairly besmirched both the governor, who was too concerned at the moment with steering the ship of state around treacherous rocks and sand bars to respond in any detail to Mr. Foley’s non-factual charges, and Mr. Occhiogrosso.

It would be a considerable understatement to say that Mr. Foley got cuffed in the back ally of Connecticut politics. Some commentators said that his reckless, Joe McCarthy-like charges had doomed the Foley campaign from the start. Very few demurred from the general view that Mr. Foley was simply describing the way politics has been played in Connecticut from time in memorial. Nothing new here; please stop throwing mud.

There were notable exceptions to the prevailing opinion. One editorial page editor of a major Connecticut newspaper allowed very early on in the controversy: “But know what, Foley's right. Legal or not, it doesn't look good. Whether the rules should change is a legitimate campaign issue for Foley to raise. But he sure could do a better job of making his case,” and a political columnist for another paper managed at a single stroke to decapitate both the cat and the mouse. The Foley charge was reckless on the one hand: “Foley served a dog's breakfast to viewers in his return as a candidate for governor.” On the other hand, the bidding process -- said by Malloyalists now employed by the political consulting group rewarded with the putative tainted contract to have been an “open” process -- was only “apparently open.”

It should be noted that the overwhelming initial – and immediate – view was that Mr. Foley’s targets were more sinned against than sinning. Mr. Foley was a gossip mongerer. But the courageous, whistleblowing Paula Altieri is made of heroic stuff. An investigation to root out possible political skullduggery in the one case is necessary – indeed, imperative. But the charge by Mr. Foley to Connecticut journalists to investigate a possible impropriety fell on parched ground. In both cases, people floating between the public and private sectors were apparently rewarded for their political connections. But the one case produced a barely suppressed caustic sniffle, while the other merited an investigation by auditors.

The obvious takeaway from this unlevel political playing field is: In Connecticut politics, it matters a great deal whose ox is being gored. Not all bums are created equal: There are “their” bums and “our” bums. Criticism in Connecticut politics is not a rational exercise.  Editorials are not always pillars of rational thought: Sometimes they are totems signaling a paper’s ideological position on a political chess board.

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