Friday, May 18, 2007

The Cesspool of Sleaze in Connecticut



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"Police had a list of citizens to execute"


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The Connecticut "Sopranos"

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CONNECTICUT NEWS
Ethics Safeguard Vanishes
May 18, 2007
By MARK PAZNIOKAS, Courant Staff Writer

State legislators no longer have to disclose where they work in the private sector, removing one of Connecticut's oldest and most basic safeguards against conflicts of interest.

The disclosure requirement disappeared without fanfare or legislative action, the victim of a legal interpretation by the new Office of State Ethics.

The absence was discovered as The Courant obtained copies of the annual financial disclosure forms that legislators were required to file this month.

"I'm shocked," said Andy Sauer, the executive director of Common Cause. "It's bewildering."

Legislators said they were surprised to find for the first time in about 25 years that they were not asked to disclose the source of outside income.

"If you don't know where people work, how can you detect a conflict?" said Rep. Christopher L. Caruso, D-Bridgeport. "That's a monumental oversight."

The Office of State Ethics, which was created by the legislature in 2005 to replace the troubled State Ethics Commission, dropped the requirement after a review of relevant state law.

Its senior attorneys say they made a surprising discovery: It is sufficient under the law to report only the general sources of income, such as "salary/wages," or "rents," "interest" and "dividends."

"There is nothing in either our statutes or our regulations that gives us the authority to ask for the disclosure of the actual employer," said Cynthia Isales, the agency's assistant general counsel.

In the past, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, was careful to disclose that he works for a law firm, Brown Rudnick, which has a lobbying subsidiary. This year, his financial disclosure form does not name Brown Rudnick.

House Majority Leader Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, used to disclose that he was employed by a labor union affiliated with Service Employees International Union and that he taught part time at the University of Hartford. This year, under sources of income, he simply wrote in the word "salary."

"What's the purpose of that?" Donovan asked.

No one was sufficiently curious to raise the question with the Office of State Ethics, nor has anyone rushed to pass corrective legislation - though legislators said action is possible before the session adjourns June 6.

It is unclear whether anyone within the Office of State Ethics grasped the significance of the omission. Ben Bycel, executive director of the agency, said no one alerted him to the change.

Bycel, one of the high-ranking executive-branch employees who has to fill out the disclosure form, said he was surprised to see so little financial information required when he completed his own document.

In its package of requested legislation, the Office of State Ethics suggested a bill earlier this year requiring state officials who file disclosure forms "to disclose sources of income, as well as a description of that income."

But legislators said the ethics agency never told them that the consequence of failing to approve the bill would be an end to a disclosure of outside employment.

"I don't remember that one being flagged," said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the committee that oversees ethics issues.

Slossberg had no reason to notice the change on her own form because she holds no job outside the General Assembly. The same is true of her co-chairman, Caruso.

Sauer said the need for the requested legislation should have been red-flagged. No one in his own advocacy group, which closely follows ethics issues and tracks legislation, realized that the disclosure of legislative employment was in jeopardy.

"This was never communicated to us. It was never said, `We have to get this.' This was never presented to us as a must-have, otherwise they will have to roll back their disclosure requirement," Sauer said. "It is a surprise."

Several legislators wondered why the Office of State Ethics did not simply continue to request the information on a voluntary basis.

"Nothing would have prohibited them from asking," Slossberg said. "It is odd. It really doesn't make a lot of sense, given the opinions they have been rendering."

Barbara Housen, the general counsel for the ethics agency, said: "I think the sense was just that those forms should reflect what the statutes and regulations should permit."

The new agency has set an aggressive tone. Recently, it reversed the old commission and barred House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, from soliciting lobbyists on behalf of his outside employer, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"This Office of State Ethics has characterized itself as a very aggressive office," Sauer said. "This is something that clearly goes in the opposite direction."

On the new disclosure form, Amann doesn't have to acknowledge he even works for the charity. He reveals what is asked: He has a spouse; they own a home; they have no dependent children. He lists securities they hold.

Rep. Timothy O'Brien, D-New Britain, said the new form obscures how legislators earn a living, important information about a part-time legislature.

"As long as we have a part-time legislature, there is going to be some level of conflicts. Transparency is important," O'Brien said. "That's the most important part of the ethics process - the public being informed."

Contact Mark Pazniokas at mpazniokas@courant.com.

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