Former Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Foley came to the state Capitol complex Monday with the straightforward idea of trying to root out conflicts of interest in state government.
But he ran into a major buzzsaw of protest from both Republicans and Democrats over the wording of a bill that he was pushing – and the impacts that it would cause. In a surprise, Foley was blasted harshly by three House Republicans who disagreed with the wording of Senate bill 727. Foley said the conflicts were “sleazy” and added that the ”foxes are running the henhouse” at the Capitol, which did not sit well with some legislators.
One of those protesting loudest against Foley’s testimony at a committee hearing was Rep. David Labriola, the brother of the state Republican Party chairman. Labriola and other Republicans protested that the bill was so broadly written that it would cover large numbers of employees who work at some of the largest corporations in Connecticut. Several legislators said it was so broad that it would affect half of all state legislators – potentially forcing them out of office.
“It’s absurdly broad. It’s outrageous,” Labriola told Foley. ”It’s actually going to cover everybody – like 1 million people. … It truly is absurd. That’s my major point.”
Labriola, who is known for being low-key in the legislature, added, “It’s not appreciated or helpful to throw around words like sleazy. … I get there’s an election coming up. I don’t think it’s helpful to use that kind of bombastic language.”
The bill, as written, states that “no public official, state employee or member of the immediate family of a public official or state employee shall receive one thousand dollars or more during a calendar year” from major state contractors or a business that employs lobbyists, among others.
That language, Labriola said, would cover any legislator who has a brother, sister, parents, or children who work for places like FedEx, Yale University or Aetna insurance, which all have lobbyists at the Capitol.
While several legislators said the wording was clear, Foley said that was never the intent of the legislation.
“This is not UTC,” Foley said. “It’s not Yale University.”
Under Foley’s interpretation, the bill would cover “certainly less than 10 percent of the jobs in Connecticut” and is designed to prevent conflicts of interest in crafting legislation. He said he was trying to target lobbying firms, rather than major corporations that hire a contract lobbyist.
“I think the legislature should have done this 30 years ago,’’ Foley told legislators.
As the clash continued, Foley said, “Undoubtedly, the language needs to be refined. I think this is a good start.”
A Democratic insider said the clash was so public and so deep that that it represented a Republican civil war. Several insiders said the back story to Monday’s bitter clash is that the House Republicans were defending their leader, Rep. Larry Cafero, an attorney for the past 15 years for Brown Rudnick, which has law and lobbying operations in Hartford. Brown Rudnick has been thrust into the spotlight recently in a civil lawsuit filed by the consulting firm of Democratic operative Matthew Hennessy against the Connecticut Resources and Recovery Authority. Hennessy charges that Brown Rudnick has been engaging in illegal lobbying at the state Capitol in obtaining money from the State Bond Commission, getting a bill vetoed in 2009 by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and obtaining appointments to the CRRA board.
But Cafero said that the House Republicans were responding to the far-reaching nature of the bill and not about him.
Both Cafero and his law partner, former House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter, have repeatedly rejected Hennessy’s charges of illegal lobbying.
“I would encourage you and Senator Markley to clarify the bill you have submitted,” said Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, an attorney from Naugatuck who clashed sharply with Foley as they both interrupted each other.
The clash was so personal that, at one point, Rebimbas asked Foley if he had read the bill.
“I not only read it. I wrote it,” Foley responded.
Jeffrey A. Asher, the executive director of the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority, said in later testimony that the bill could potentially cover any family member of a state legislator who works in any nursing home or hospital in the state because all of those entities receive Medicaid money from the state to care for patients.
Democrats said they were absolutely delighted by the testimony and the turn of events at the Capitol.
After the hearing, one longtime Capitol insider said, “Have you ever seen such a train wreck like that? It was remarkable. Wow! I don’t think I’ve seen anybody get slammed like that by his own. It was a political trainwreck. … It went from nobody watching it to half the people in this building watching it. I talked to a union guy who said he’s going to get a tape of it” for a campaign commercial in 2014.
Another veteran insider said, “It was unbelievable. I don’t know if it was a kick to Larry and CRRA and Ritter. I’m trying to figure it out. … This was getting real ugly and going downhill. They were talking about the FedEx guy from Bridgeport. … It just blew up. It was like a perfect storm. Labriola doesn’t get fired up too much, but he was fired up today. … There are a lot of people talking about that.”
A third insider said, “I’ve seen a lot of crazy hearings in my time. It was up there in the panoply of just odd. It was a shootout among the Republicans. The Democrats were half-heartedly there, and then they realized the Republicans were going to go to town on him. … Larry’s guys extended the pain because they just kept coming. Candidate McKinney, for governor, pulls his guys out of the fire. Dan Malloy lucked out because the Republicans turned friendly fire on each other.”
Insiders said that Republicans could easily have kept their mouths shut about a bill by a fellow Republican, but they did not.
Foley, who won 128 of the state’s 169 municipalities before losing by less than 1 percentage point to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in 2010, is intending to run again in 2014. Foley, a Harvard graduate who served as the former American ambassador in Ireland, served in Iraq for seven months as part of the reconstruction efforts under then-President George W. Bush.
“Part of the problem is the foxes are running the henhouse,” Foley told committee members in his opening remarks. “Our ethics rules start off as ‘ethics light,’ and then on appeal, everyone is given a pass because people have a right to earn a living. That’s the same argument that you hear when you go to a foreign country, and the police demand a bribe with the excuse that they are not paid enough. That may be true, but it is still a bribe. In most of those countries, unlike here, it is illegal. … Let’s make this sleazy practice illegal here, too. Serving in the state government and the state legislature is a privilege. It is not a right. Those unable to serve without conflicts of interest should not be allowed to serve. Under this bill, they won’t be.”
But Rebimbas took umbrage at Foley’s statements.
“I do take that personally. I don’t appreciate being referred to as a hen in the henhouse,” she said. “The Capitol is not a henhouse, and I am not a hen.”