November 10, 2015: This story has been corrected.
The walls of First and Last Tavern, a popular Italian restaurant in Hartford’s South End, are crowded with photos of Connecticut powerbrokers and politicians, including the former Republican governor who was forced to resign in 2004 in a spectacular corruption scandal.
Gov. John Rowland accepted vacations, home improvements and, infamously, a hot tub, in exchange for state contracts. Shortly after he went to federal prison in 2005, the legislature approved an elections reform program built on public financing of campaigns. If elected officials were free from the need to raise ever-higher sums to run for office, lawmakers reasoned, they wouldn’t be vulnerable to contractors and other special interests. The rigorous Citizens’ Election Program quickly became a gold standard.
But Connecticut’s elections watchdog agency and the state’s dominant Democratic Party are now battling over what was supposedly eliminated a decade ago — contributions from special interests. In 2014, the two major party candidates for governor each received $6.5 million in public funds. But they also benefited from more than $19 million from Super PACs and other outside interests—including state contractors, whom Democrats encouraged to contribute to a specific account outside the jurisdiction of state laws.
The fight over public financing is just one sign of what good-government advocates and oversight groups say is a series of recent setbacks in the state’s efforts to finally shed its well-earned nickname, “Corrupticut.”
Those setbacks contributed to Connecticut’s mediocre score of 71, a C-, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Although the state ranked third in the country, its grade has declined from a solid B in 2012, the first time the project was carried out. And while the two scores are not directly comparable, due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, the decline, many advocates say, is indisputable.
A progressive history
Connecticut prides itself on a forward-looking attitude. In the orbit of New York and Boston, it’s home to many respected institutions of higher education, and the population is one of the most highly educated in the country. It’s also solid blue — even when the state elects a Republican, the official’s outlier status is usually softened with the moniker “Connecticut Republican” to mark them as a relatively moderate.
After Watergate, Connecticut became the second state, in 1975, to pass a public records law, and was one of the first to establish an entity devoted to overseeing it: the Freedom of Information Commission.
But, said Jim Smith, a longtime newspaper editor and president of the independent watchdog group, the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, almost as soon as the act was approved, the “nibbling on it” began.
Connecticut’s open records law explicitly lists 27 exemptions. But the law’s statutes “are literally packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of superseding statutes” that add many more exceptions, said Mitchell Pearlman, the former executive director and general counsel of the Freedom of Information Commission.
An exemption for details about prison security systems may seem understandable. But what about the books of the University of Connecticut’s fundraising arm, the nonprofit UConn Foundation? Or job evaluations of public university professors?
The trend in recent years, both in state courts and in public opinion, has been toward protecting more information from public view, watchdogs say. As a result, Connecticut was one of many states to receive a failing grade in the category of access to information.
“Privacy has become much more important to the American people,” Smith said.
Campaign finance loopholes
A particularly sharp fall has occurred in the deterioration of the state’s system for public financing of political campaigns.
As approved by the legislature, the Citizens’ Election Program gives taxpayer money to eligible candidates for state office and imposes reporting requirements and strict limits on any other contributions they accept.
But in 2013, Democrats weakened the program in a stealth move on the last night of the session. With control of both houses of the Legislature, they pushed through a measure, later signed by the governor, that tightened some reporting requirements for campaign contributions but dramatically raised contribution limits. The change doubled what individuals can give to political parties, for example, from $5,000 to $10,000, and eliminated the ceiling on what parties can spend on legislative candidates.
Ted Kennedy Jr., a Connecticut shoreline resident and son of the late senator, accepted $95,000 in public funds in 2014 in his first run for office, a state Senate seat. So did his Republican opponent. But fearing that his high profile would make him a target for last-minute expenditures by conservative groups, the state party gave Kennedy an additional $205,000. This included $40,000 that Kennedy family members and colleagues gave to the state party to help the candidate in the final weeks of the campaign.
In a separate action, one of several currently being challenged by the elections oversight agency, Democrats encouraged donors to bypass contribution limits by giving money to the state party’s federal account, which is generally meant to help candidates for federal office, and is outside the purview of state election laws and their contribution limits..
A month before the 2014 elections, the Democratic Party used contributions from special interest groups to send a mailer to thousands of Connecticut residents urging them to re-elect Gov. Dannel Malloy. The mailer was covered with photographs of the smiling governor, and, in small letters on the back, encouraged residents to vote. Democrats say that fine-print message met a federal elections requirement and justified their use of funds from their party’s federal account.
The Malloy administration declined several requests for comment, but the governor and other state Democrats have said that the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which has led to a surge in special interest money in elections across the country, justifies the use of funds from their federal account.
In some cases, it seems that Connecticut has strong laws on transparency and ethics, but for various reasons, agencies are not living up to them. The State Integrity Investigation found that Connecticut has a significant “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between laws on the books and how well they’re actually implemented.
A case in point regards the Judicial Review Council, created in 1977 to investigate complaints against all appointed judges. Between 1985 and 1992, its purview was extended to cover other appointees with judicial roles, including workers’ compensation commissioners and family support magistrates. The language in the law creating the council is strong and direct, but some critics say the agency’s actions are unimpressive, or at least appear to be (much of its work is confidential).
In the past 26 years, according to its website, the council has conducted public hearings on complaints filed against 11 judges; one judge was exonerated, and 10 were publicly censured or temporarily suspended (two of the 10 were disciplined twice). Its website shows no hearings or disciplinary actions against workers’ compensation commissioners or family support magistrates.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the council dismisses the vast majority of complaints it receives, but in some years, its dismissal rate has been more dramatic. According to its website, for example, the council dismissed 171 of the 178 complaints it considered in 2014.
In response to the large number of complaints, the council’s 2015 annual report greatly expands its explanation of what is, and isn’t, within its jurisdiction.
In an emailed response to questions, JRC Chairman Richard T. Meehan Jr. rejected the notion that the agency is falling short of its duties. “Every matter brought before us undergoes a thorough investigation and review,” he said. Regarding criticism about a lack of transparency, he pointed to the state laws that call for much of the panel’s work to be confidential. “The remainder of your questions are better addressed to the Legislature,” Meehan wrote.
One of the clearest steps state officials could take to improve transparency and accountability, advocates say, would be to increase funding to the watchdog agencies, and particularly to those overseeing the state’s open records, elections and ethics laws.
Another step would be to make the agencies politically independent. “If I were queen of the world,” said Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, she would make her agency completely independent. But unfortunately, she said, “we’re not.”
Correction, November 10, 2015, 3:16 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect title forCarol Carson. She is not also the general counsel of the Office of State Ethics.