Sunday, May 08, 2005

A real problem with ethics and the official ethics watchdogs

Ethics Panel Sweats It Out
Some Legislators Want It Replaced
May 8, 2005 By JON LENDER, Hartford Courant Staff Writer

These are grim days for the State Ethics Commission. The once-respected watchdog of government officials' conduct has failed to shake off the bitter after-effects of last summer's firing of longtime director Alan S. Plofsky, and now it faces the bureaucratic equivalent of capital punishment.

The General Assembly is considering bills to abolish the 27-year-old commission and replace it with a new agency, the shape of which varies from bill to bill. One key issue is whether to leave its seven remaining staff members in place or transfer them to quieter corners of state government.

In normal political times, the ethics commission would play a major role in efforts to enact an ambitious agenda of government ethics reforms - which now are proposed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Democratic legislative leaders after the corruption scandal that landed ex-Gov.

John G. Rowland in federal prison for the rest of this year.But times aren't normal. Some ethics advocates who typically would solicit the advice and help of commission members and the ethics office staff no longer have any use for them.

"Nobody trusts the ethics commission," said Andy Sauer, the Connecticut director for the good-government advocacy group Common Cause, a perennial booster of the ethics agency until it fired Plofsky, who was a peristent Rowland critic.

"Something happened last summer, and nobody involved in it is willing to say what. ... They say, `OK, let's just move on to other business.'

"But I can't move on."

Ethics commission Chairman Hugh Macgill acknowledged his agency's predicament and wondered why its normal allies, such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, have deserted it. He said the legislative ethics restructuring proposals do not preserve the agency's effectiveness and independence.

"Are they in such a snit over what they see as mistreatment of Plofsky that they lose sight of the real question, which is effective enforcement of the ethics laws of the state?" Macgill asked.

"Where are the watchdogs? Have they become lapdogs?"

Meanwhile, an influential legislator also is irked by what he calls "inappropriate" lobbying efforts by two ethics commission lawyers - whose "whistle-blower" complaints led to Plofsky's firing - to preserve their existing positions at the commission office.

State Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport - co-chairman of the government administration and elections committee, which oversees the ethics commission - said "I don't think it's appropriate for staff members to be fighting for their own jobs" harder than they seem to be lobbying for ethics reform legislation. He said they had basically "done nothing" on a municipal ethics bill, "but when it comes to their own positions, they're all over here, lobbying."

But Macgill said the staff members "actively" have participated in the legislative process.

As to lobbying to save their jobs, one of the staff members Caruso referred to, Alice Sexton, said she had "used personal time" one day when she went to the Capitol with her fellow staff lawyer and whistle-blower, Brenda Bergeron, and union representatives.

"We lobbied one legislator and some senior senatorial staff" against ethics restructuring bills - "one of which would expressly eliminate our positions," she said.

Sexton said that despite attempts to meet with Caruso, he "has refused to hear the ethics commission's view" of effective reform.

"My personal view is that the good government groups ... are angry over the firing of Alan Plofsky and have let themselves - in the name of ethics reform - be co-opted by those who have always wanted to eliminate ethics enforcement. ... This is not ethics reform, it's ethics demolition."

Macgill said because of the Rowland scandal, both political parties have been "grandstanding" in the competition to express a "zeal for ethics."

"Can political insiders, left to themselves, be relied on to come up with a stronger, more independent system?" Macgill asked.

"To most of them, ethics is like spinach - they know it is good for them, but they don't want to see it on the plate at every meal."

Credibility Questioned

At this moment of scrutiny, the ethics commission's credibility continues to suffer attacks in two other official state forums where Plofsky is pursuing appeals to regain his job. Commission members and another official involved in his ouster have given inconsistent testimony under oath about the firing, feeding his claim that he was railroaded.

At a March 3 hearing of the state Freedom of Information Commission, Rosemary Giuliano, chairwoman of the ethics commission when it fired Plofsky last Sept. 10, testified under oath that commission members had no discussions among themselves, made no decisions and reached no consensus during a six-hour executive session two days before the firing. The commission heard the report of an investigation of Plofsky's conduct by a state personnel official, Alan Mazzola, Giuliano said, then reconvened in public and voted to go forward with disciplinary proceedings.

But on April 8, Helen Z. Pearl, another ethics commission member who participated in the Sept. 8 executive session, gave a different picture at a hearing of the employees' review board. Pearl, also testifying under oath, said the wording of four specific misconduct charges against Plofsky was worked out during the closed-door session, and the commission reached a consensus on the charges it would include in a motion for a disciplinary proceeding it would adopt when it reconvened in public.

Mazzola had testified before the same board earlier that Linda Yelmini, a lawyer who now is the state's commissioner of administrative services but who was a labor relations official advising the ethics commission last Sept. 8, had inquired during the closed-door session whether commission members believed some action toward a disciplinary hearing needed to be taken.

The commissioners indicated that they believed such a move was warranted, Mazzola said.

Based on the discrepancies in the three witnesses' testimony, Plofsky's lawyer, Gregg Adler, got the FOI commission to reopen its hearing two weeks ago. Mazzola and Pearl were among the witnesses, and this time, both gave testimony more in line with Giuliano's.

Assistant Attorney General Clare E. Kindall, defending the ethics commission, dismissed any inconsistencies in the various statements as insignificant semantic differences. She wrote in a legal brief Friday to the FOI commission that Giuliano's testimony "has not been refuted by any evidence to the contrary."

But Adler wants the FOI commission to overturn actions taken during the Sept. 8 ethics commission meeting, arguing that Plofsky had a right to insist that discussion and debate take place in public.

"It is now clear that Ms. Giuliano's testimony was both inaccurate and misleading," Adler wrote Friday in his own brief to the FOI commission.

Such legal contention frustrates Common Cause's Sauer.

"We will never learn what really happened," Sauer said.

"But it appears to me that Alan Plofsky was run out of town for the slimmest of reasons."

An Influential CriticAs vocal as Sauer is in his disenchantment with the commission, his is not the most powerful voice against the agency. That distinction might belong to Caruso, who is pushing a House-initiated restructuring bill that would move the seven current commission staff members to other agencies at the same pay and job classifications.

The bill also would dismantle the ethics commission and create a new "Commission on Public Integrity."

The new agency's executive director would have the option of rehiring any of the transferred employees.

Caruso said his committee has "lost confidence" in the existing ethics commission and staff.

"This commission - this is the one that the public, that the legislature, that every public official looks to for confidence," he said.

"Whether you agreed with Mr. Plofsky or not, the point is with this backbiting, this unprofessional approach, this espionage within the agency, and the commissioners, with their involvement - they actually became paralyzed, and they couldn't get the work done. There's this large backlog of unresolved cases that exists."

The ethics commission fired an emphatic shot in defense of the current staff on Friday, sending a two-page memo to the legislative labor and public employees committee, which soon will consider ethics legislation.

"The current Ethics Commission staff should not be forcibly reassigned to other state agencies," the commission said.

"As it is, a new enforcement body will face difficulties enough in getting up to speed. ...Fairness suggests that the job performance of members of a largely unionized staff should be reviewed in an orderly and professional manner."

Even the appearance of political retaliation should be avoided.

"Caruso is adamant that confidence cannot be rebuilt if anyone from the agency's current staff remains at the Hartford office on Trinity Street - particularly staff lawyers Sexton and Bergeron, two of the three Plofsky subordinates whose sworn "whistle-blower" complaints against Plofsky last summer led to his abrupt firing. The third whistle-blower, also a lawyer, has left the agency.

Senate leaders are not necessarily sold on the approach of their House colleague.Caruso's co-chairman on the government administration and elections committee, Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, has reservations about moving out the existing ethics staff.

DeFronzo, a former state employee union leader, said that if a state administrator tried to transfer the employees through normal channels, the workers would have appeal rights through their unions. Though the General Assembly has the power to move them "by legislative fiat," he said, that doesn't make it right.

The Senate bill advocated by Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, would dissolve the commission in favor of a seven-member Citizen's Ethics Advisory Board and Office of State Ethics. Ethics enforcement cases would be handled by retired judges.

"I have full confidence that we will be able to resolve these differences," Williams said Friday.

Sources say that Rell generally feels more comfortable with the House version - which the government administration and elections committee approved unanimously, Republicans and Democrats agreeing. At Rell's request, committee leaders will meet Monday with governor's office staffers on ethics bills.

"We must find common ground between both Chambers and the Administration, and pass an ethics bill that I can sign into law," Rell wrote to the committee leaders last week.

DeFronzo said one of the two lawyer whistle-blowers remaining at the agency, backed by their union representative, has raised the possibility that moving the ethics staff elsewhere might be considered an illegal "retaliation" against them for providing information against Plofsky last year.

"We're not singling out any individual or individuals," Caruso said.

"It's really a fresh start to move a very troubled agency forward."


Blogger saby said...

too much of LAW in here
the LAW is an ass

how about introducing some porn and humor too ?

Monday, May 23, 2005 1:22:00 AM  

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