It just didn’t sound right to West Hartford Mayor R. Scott Slifka.
As a board member of the state’s powerful regional garbage agency, Slifka knew that state law prevented the agency from hiring a lobbyist. Yet, Slifka was being asked to vote on extending the consulting contract held by the firm of a registered lobbyist, former House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter.
“There was this splitting-hairs definition that this isn’t really lobbying,’’ Slifka says now of the board deliberations in 2011. “It seems it doesn’t pass the smell test. That’s the kind of thing the man on the street doesn’t understand, and that’s how I felt. It may be legal, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.’’
In the end, Slifka voted against extending Ritter’s contract, but he never sought publicity and generally avoided talking publicly about his concerns – until now.
Slifka, a 39-year-old Democrat, is talking in the wake of a bitter lawsuit filed by the consulting firm of Hartford Democratic strategist Matthew Hennessy against CRRA, charging that the agency awarded the consulting contract to Ritter’s firm because of ‘favoritism, fraud, and/or corruption.’’ Hennessy charges in the suit that Ritter has been lobbying illegally, and he is seeking a court injunction “prohibiting CRRA from utilizing outside lobbyists’’ and a ruling awarding the contract to Hennessy’s firm, Tremont Public Advisors LLC.
Ritter, the longtime Democrat who serves as vice chairman of the University of Connecticut’s board of trustees, has said repeatedly that he has never lobbied for CRRA. He has received various rulings from the state’s ethics commission regarding what he can and cannot do. He says that just because he is a registered lobbyist does not mean that he cannot do non-lobbying work for the CRRA. Ritter has also declined comment on the lawsuit, saying it would be inappropriate to talk publicly about pending litigation. He has referred questions to a Massachusetts public relations firm, which says that empoyees of Brown Rudnick, where Ritter works, have always complied with all legal, regulatory, and ethical rulings.
After serving on the CRRA board for about 18 months, Slifka left the organization recently because West Hartford is no longer among the towns that sends its garbage to CRRA facilities. Instead, Slifka said that West Hartford now has “a much better deal’’ with a private company called Covanta Energy that saves the town “a couple hundred thousand dollars a year’’ and provides good service for taxpayers. West Hartford had burned its garbage at the CRRA trash-to-energy facility in Hartford from 1984 to 2012, and the town was paying about $1.4 million per year to CRRA toward the end of the contract.
Slifka started raising questions at CRRA in the fall of 2011 at around the same time that Hennessy was told that he did not win the bid. But Slifka stresses that he was only concerned about the principle of hiring a lobbyist and was never concerned about the personalities involved. He says that CRRA officials were not happy that he was raising questions.
“The first response I got back was: you should to talk to Tom and find out what he does,’’ Slifka said in an interview. “I said, ‘My concern isn’t with Tom. My feeling is whether it is OK or not, it really isn’t in the spirit of the law.’ It wasn’t about who was selected as a lobbyist. It’s whether the board has the legal authority to hire a lobbyist. I thought the board was barred from doing exactly this. It doesn’t matter if it’s Tom Ritter. It doesn’t matter if it’s Matt Hennessy, who filed the suit.’’
The minutes of board meetings and several emails show that Slifka raised the issue with CRRA’s president, Thomas Kirk, and fellow board members. Slifka was on the losing end of a 5-2 vote on December 22, 2011 on whether to extend Ritter’s contract from January through the end of October 2012. One board member who abstained, Dot Kelly, was appointed by House Republican leader Larry Cafero, who is a partner in Brown Rudnick, the same law and lobbying firm as Ritter.
“I felt I was doing this as a board member with particular responsibilities,’’ Slifka said of voicing his concerns. “I wasn’t doing it to make anybody look bad or get publicity for myself.’’
The only other board member who voted along with Slifka – against extending Ritter’s contract – was Barkhamsted first selectman Donald S. Stein.
“The guy who was most with me was Don Stein, who is now the new chair,’’ Slifka said. “Don was a good guy. Don was certainly of like mind. Don was fully aware of what I was pursuing.’’
Reached Thursday on his cell phone, Stein said that he made his decision for financial reasons instead of any legal or ethical concerns. Brown Rudnick’s contract at the time for the “municipal liaison’’ was $84,000 per year.
“I didn’t feel that spending money on a municipal liaison was necessarily a good use of the money,’’ Stein said. “It had nothing to do with Mr. Ritter, who I’ve met once for three minutes at a meeting or Mr. Hennessey, who I’ve never met. I’ve never met Mr. Hennessy in my life.’’
Stein said he remembers shaking Ritter’s hand, but he added that he has never had any extended dealings with him.
Stein referred to the minutes of the board meeting of December 22, 2011, saying, \”Those minutes are extremely accurate and more accurate than my memory of a meeting a year and a half ago.\’\’
The minutes state that, \”Director Stein said this is the only contract CRRA has which involves a retainer rather than a cash-oriented hourly rate as compared to the other public relations services CRRA uses.\’\’
The minutes also state that, \”Mr. Kirk said this contract is unusual in the regard that it is a retainer arrangement and most of CRRA\’s consultants work on an hourly basis and are in a stable.\’\’
As some have raised questions about the future of CRRA, Stein conceded that the authority lost tons of garbage and plenty of money when West Hartford pulled out.
“Obviously West Hartford was a blow,’’ Stein said. “Between the contracted tonnage and the spot market, we believe we will have sufficient tonnage to keep the facility full. I believe it’s full now.’’
Slifka, the longtime mayor who lost in the statewide Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2006, also stressed that he made his conclusions independently and told board members that he was not involved in Hennessy’s complaints.
“At the same time, Matt Hennessy was asking questions,’’ Slifka said. “If it wasn’t going on exactly simultaneously, it was going on at roughly the same time. I’m not asking the questions on Mr. Hennessy’s behalf. That is a coincidence.’’
Slifka said he was also surprised that Ritter had been working for CRRA since 2006 under a contract that had been extended several times.
“The law says you can’t hire a lobbyist, but you hired a lobbyist,’’ Slifka said. “I couldn’t answer that, and I couldn’t justify that. I was somewhat surprised that it hadn’t come up before. This was a [contract] renewal. This wasn’t someone’s new brainchild.’’