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City Council Grapples With Contractor Influence

A proposed ordinance banning campaign contributions from contractors languishes

by Jon Campbell

October 11, 2010

With former Mayor Eddie Perez heading to jail for accepting bribes from a city contractor, and a sitting councilwoman, Veronica Airey-Wilson, facing related charges, the question of contractors’ influence on local politics isn’t exactly academic in Hartford. Whether it’s a campaign contribution — or in Airey-Wilson’s case, a countertop for your butler pantry — some of the city’s contractors have apparently embraced that old adage, “it’s better to give than receive.” Or maybe in this case, “it’s better to give then receive.”

You might expect that reform would be a big topic around city hall. But even after this summer’s graft-a-palooza, an ordinance that would prohibit city contractors from donating to local political campaigns has been languishing on the city council dais for more than a year. With any luck, the item should be coming before the council again on Tuesday, but since it’s been pushed off several times already, there’s no telling whether the ordinance will actually move closer to enactment.

If it were added to the books, the new law would prohibit any individual or company doing business with the city from making campaign contributions to elected officials. While it wouldn’t stop the kind of bald-faced, balls-out bribery splashed on front pages this past summer — mainly because that stuff’s already super-illegal — it may help to reduce the potential for other kinds of quid-pro-quo abuses, even if the penalties are a bit wrist-slappy. Contractors caught violating the law would have their agreements revoked, and officials caught accepting such contributions would have to … give them back. But at least it’s a start. The prohibitions also go for contractors working with the city’s Parking Authority, Housing Authority and the Hartford Board of Education.

Councilman Luis Cotto first proposed the new rule in February 2009, but the item was repeatedly tabled over the past year.

In June of 2010, after Perez’s conviction and resignation, Cotto brought the item back to his colleagues. He said he was trying to grab hold of the momentum of the moment.

“I hoped putting it in this context [of the mayor’s conviction] would get more support,” said Cotto.

According to Deputy Corporation Counsel Carl Nasto, questions about the ordinance’s legality are one reason for the most recent delay. An August ruling from the Connecticut Supreme Court — which struck down portions of the state’s Campaign Finance Reform Act — may also have implications for the local ordinance, Nasto said. His office had to take a new approach to the review after that ruling, which he said is part of the reason for slow progress.

The state’s CFRA became law in 2006, in the wake of the corruption scandal of former Governor John Rowland, and made it far more difficult to grease the wheels of democracy in the state. It took particular aim at the state’s professional lubricators — lobbyists — barring them from making any political contributions at all. The court said that while the state can limit contributions from lobbyists, the outright ban is too restrictive. Nasto said the language of the Hartford ordinance also involves an outright ban, though it addresses contractors, not lobbyists. He said his office is examining whether the state Supreme Court ruling would apply to the proposed ban on contractor money in Hartford anyway.

Councilman Matthew Ritter, who chairs the Legislative Subcommittee where the ordinance has been treading water, said he’d asked the Corporation Counsel about the progress of their review twice during city council meetings over the past year, and was told they were working on it. He said the legal questions posed by the ordinance were complicated ones, made all the more complicated by the ruling on lobbyist contributions.

Ritter said the issue was important and deserved to be addressed, but he didn’t think the review process had been overly long.

“The law just changed in August. So, I expect them to come up with something soon. It’s not one that would take a year, but I’m not surprised that it would take a few weeks,” said Ritter.

Neither newly appointed Mayor Pedro Segarra nor Airey-Wilson, who is scheduled to appear in court later this month on charges of fabricating evidence related to a fraud investigation, returned calls for comment on the proposed ordinance.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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