Political Scandals Refuse To Go Away in 'Corrupticut'
Monday, July 3, 2006
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- There was the mayor who liked to be plied with $100-plus bottles of Bordeaux. The governor who took a free hot tub. The state senator who was given a job that paid $30,000 for doing nothing -- and then demanded a raise.
The past few years have revealed so many tales of graft, malfeasance and all-purpose criminality by public servants in Connecticut that it's hard to choose the most brazen. But for Kevin J. O'Connor, the U.S. attorney here, one moment stands out.
It came in June 2004, while then-Gov. John G. Rowland (R) -- he of the hot tub -- was facing impeachment in the legislature for improperly taking gifts. Even in that fraught time, O'Connor said, federal agents recorded state Sen. Ernest E. Newton II (D) -- he of the no-show job -- asking someone for a bribe.
"I thought to myself, you know, 'What are these people thinking?' " O'Connor said.
When Connecticut forefathers nicknamed their state "The Land of Steady Habits," this was probably not what they had in mind. But a tradition of bad behavior by officeholders persists here, despite numerous prosecutions and attempts at reform.
If more proof were needed, it has come in the past few weeks, with three new scandals involving current or former big-city mayors.
When Rowland resigned, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March 2005 to a year and a day in jail, "everybody thought that was going to be the end of it," said John M. Orman, a professor of politics at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. Instead, he said, the continuing parade of misdeeds has helped the state live up to a new nickname, "Corrupticut." "We just keep having 'em in Connecticut," Orman said.
The recent scandals here include the tearful, nationally televised admission on June 20 by Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi (D) that he had used cocaine while in office. "I am pleased to tell you that I have not used drugs in the last 18 months," said Fabrizi, who has been mayor for more than three years. For now, the U.S. attorney's office says it has no plans to prosecute him for the drug use.
Other cases include a former mayor and city council member from Middletown -- who pleaded guilty late last month to fraud for embezzling money from his law clients -- and a new charge against Joseph Santopietro, the former mayor of Waterbury. Santopietro previously was convicted on bribery charges stemming from his conduct as mayor in the 1990s. Now out of jail, he has been charged with racketeering conspiracy for allegedly serving as a consultant to a mob-affiliated garbage-hauling business.
These cases are just the latest in a long string of charges against officeholders this year. There was Rowland's former chief of staff, who was sentenced to jail in April for bribery and tax offenses. There was a postmaster who stole from a customer, a public-works official who lied to federal investigators, and a state transportation worker who helped rig a bidding process and got a free TV from the winning contractor.
It all adds up to a big problem, officials here say. Statistically, the state's corruption prosecutions still don't equal those of places such as New Jersey, Illinois or Mississippi. But many fear that businesses will be driven away, or that voters and potential candidates might be disillusioned by a perception that Connecticut is -- as one pol has put it -- "Louisiana with foliage."
"We thought we were a state of Yankee integrity," said Howard L. Reiter, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut. "Clearly, that's not the case anymore."
Observers of Connecticut politics say that part of the problem was that ethics rules went unenforced here for so long, allowing corrupt practices to become ingrained before large-scale prosecutions began in the 1980s and 1990s. Another problem is the state's network of political machines, which incubate Republican and Democratic hopefuls in systems in which friendship and favors rule.
In recent years, the two most prolific incubators have been a pair of old manufacturing cities in Connecticut's western half. Waterbury, in addition to being Rowland's home town, had three mayors charged with crimes, and two of them imprisoned. In Bridgeport, Fabrizi's predecessor, Joseph P. Ganim, also a Democrat, was convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks.
In the Ganim case, one of those doing the bribing was Lennie Grimaldi, a public relations consultant. Grimaldi said that the city's political culture dictated that he lavish gifts on the mayor or else worry that his clients would be frozen out of city business.
"It started off with, you know, buying dinners, and then expensive dinners, and then a little bit of wine, and then the gifts. . . . It became this monster," recalled Grimaldi, who served 10 months in prison and has become a successful freelance writer after his release. "I didn't have the guts to say no to a mayor that had a tremendous amount of economic power over me."
Last year, the Rowland scandal galvanized legislators to try to change the atmosphere. They created a system that bars political contributions from state contractors and lobbyists, and aims to reduce the influence of donors overall by providing public financing for candidates in future elections.
Locally, some officials have made their own efforts at doing politics strictly by the book. These days, Waterbury Mayor Michael J. Jarjura (D) said, even fruit baskets sent by constituents won't be accepted.
"I know they're just trying to be kind," Jarjura said, "but we immediately send it back, and we document that we sent it back."
These efforts at reforming the system are now widespread enough that Rowland's defense attorney, William F. Dow III, said he fears the good in the state's old system might be lost.
"Government will operate less efficiently" if politicians obsess over avoiding appearances of impropriety, Dow said. "I think this dotting the i's and crossing the t's is going to have a chilling effect."
The chill isn't here yet, though. Instead, last week saw another of the kind of embarrassing spectacle Connecticut is seeking to avoid, as defendants in the garbage-hauling case were arraigned in New Haven's federal court.
In that case, prosecutors allege that a slew of Connecticut businesses used mob muscle to keep competitors away from the routes where they picked up trash. Those charged include an 86-year-old man alleged to be mob boss "Matty the Horse," plus a number of lower-level players who appeared in court wearing pompadour haircuts or tailored suits.
Then there was Santopietro, the former Republican mayor of Waterbury, who stood out because he wore just slacks and a sensible-looking short-sleeved dress shirt. Out of the whole bunch, he was the only one who looked like a civil servant.