Monday, September 26, 2005

Charitable Corruption

Courant: House Speaker Uses Position to Raise Funds for Employer

In an article that ran this weekend in the Courant, columnist Kevin Rennie accuses House Speaker Jim Amann's use of his considerable influence to raise money for the Greater Connecticut Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

This wouldn't be so bad if Amann weren't employed by that charity to do just that. They pay him $60,000/year, in fact.

This winter, spring and summer, Amann, members of his legislative staff and a select group of lobbyists helped raise money for an MS fund-raising event honoring Gov. M. Jodi Rell and singer Michael Bolton July 13...
He admits that he solicited lobbyists and their clients during and after this year's legislative session. Among those helping him were state Rep. Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, and lobbyist Shelly Rubino, who are colleagues at the Hartford office of law and lobbying firm Brown, Rudnick. Cafero and Rubino also were listed on literature for the Wallingford event as members of the planning committee.
Ignoring lines and guardrails that the law constructs, Amann hosted at least one meeting of fundraisers and others in his Capitol office.
Amann says that his subordinates did help him raise money for his employer, but that it was "strictly voluntary." In the pyramid of power, helping the boss succeed at his civilian job is usually not a choice.

Amann staff members - some of whom already have reputations for being especially aggressive in their constant pursuit of contributions for political and other causes - made calls during the legislative session that included this subtle incentive: The speaker is waiting to hear if you are going to contribute to his event.
The speaker of the House has flouted the law with the assistance of plenty of accomplices. Subpoenas should fly. (Rennie)

I have no problem with charitable giving. But this is clearly a conflict of interest and probably a violation of ethics rules. Does Amann forget how he got his position? He wouldn't be Speaker if Kevin Sullivan hadn't been bumped up to Lt. Gov. following John Rowland's resignation and Jodi Rell's assumption of the governorship.
(Correction: Not true. Amann was not in the line of succession, but was elected after Moira Lyons left.)

Is this the sort of thing that could lead to Amann's ouster? Probably not. That guy's like a barnicle on the side of the Capitol. However, legislative Democrats can't afford to let this one go. Investigate. Censure. Vote him out of the leadership. Democrats are steadily losing the moral high ground they had after Rowland's departure, and Amann's poor leadership and questionable ethics are partly to blame.

I, for one, won't be sorry to see him go, if it comes to that.

Rennie, Kevin. "For Speaker, Charity Begins With A Shakedown." Hartford Courant 25 September, 2005.


stomv said...

It seems like the smart thing to do would be for a number of dems to challenge him in private. Agree that he will step down on some reasonably short timeframe, and that he will terminate his financial ties with the charity.

If he refuses the terms, the Dems could hammer him publically, something that isn't good for the Dems in the short run but might help the Dems keep their collective noses clean in the long run.

Ugh. I just don't understand why politicians keep getting in foolishly sticky situations. It seems like each party needs an "Ethical hotline and clearing house" where politicians could `anonymously' call up with ethics concerns and have them resolved in house, quietly and effectively.

Genghis Conn said...

Anything like that would need to start at the leadership level... and in this case I don't see it happening.

I erred in the original post, by the way. Don Williams succeeded Kevin Sullivan in the Senate. Amann benefitted from Moira Lyons leaving the House.

MikeCT said...

I would probably not agree with Kevin Rennie on 99% of policy issues, but he does a better job of muckracking than most political reporters. I always check his columns. I doubt that resignation is in the offing for Amann, though he needs to clean up his act. Someone needs to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission (lately in disarray) to get something moving.

Amann is not a progressive champion and has some apparent ethical deficits, but I would not say he is a "poor leader" in the way he manages the House. He takes the rank and file seriously, allows bills to come to a vote even when he disagrees with them, allows committees to actually develop and move significant legislation, and keeps the caucus in the loop. Moira Lyons and Kevin Sullivan were poor leaders who ignored the rank and file and the entire committee process, developed budgets in secret (springing the final versions at the last moment so legislators could not even know what they were voting on), silenced dissent, allowed important legislation to die of inaction, and offered only a fearful and inarticulate opposition to Rowland (Lyons was known as the "worst soundbite in the building").

Anonymous said...

While the situation with Amann certainly raises eyebrows, it's hard to fault a guy for trying to raise money for such a worthy cause. You also have to remember that as a part-time legislature, lawmakers have to have some kind of job that allows them to pay the bills. The worst Amann can be accused of is that he misused his position by allowing his staff to make calls and hold meetings in the Speaker's Office in furtherance of his private sector position. If that's worth resigning over, then the other lawmakers who are actually employable are likely to find themselves in the same position. There are lawmakers who are in a variety of businesses that may include lobbyists as clientele. And who hasn't heard a lawmaker juggling calls from clients or business partners while cooling his heels waiting for the legislature to convene or a public hearing to end.

If they can't prove any quid pro quo, and I can't imagine they will, this is just a minor ethical lapse on Amann's part.

I agree that it's ridiculous that politicians keep getting themselves in these sticky situations, particularly when they keep pointing their fingers at the lobbyists and contractors when discussing campaign finance reform and ethics reform. But how do you hang a guy for drumming up support for MS, particularly when employers all over the state sit on employees to donate to United Way or some other pet charity.

confused said...

I don't see how Kevin Sullivan getting bumped to Lt Gov had anything to do with Amann becoming speaker? As far as I understood, Amann was running (and had the votes pretty much sewn up) regardless of what happened in the Senate and Exec branch. I would think that it's Williams that owes his spot to Sullivan moving...

Genghis Conn said...

You're quite right, confused, I goofed.

As for Amann and poor leadership, he has constantly allowed himself to be outmanuevered by Rell, and he's been a roadblock to campaign finance reform. He's better than Lyons, definitely, but that still doesn't make him great.

It's great that Amann raises money for charity. The sticking point is that he's paid by the MS society to do so, and that he uses his public office to perform private business.

CTObserver said...

In response to Anonymous, the Speaker's problem has nothging to do with raising money for MS. It is HOW he raised it. To go to the lobbyists, in the middle of the session, and ask for money for your employer? A blind man on horseback could see the problems with that! You're a lobbyist, with a bill you need moved (and the Speaker controls the bill calendar), and he "asks" you for a donation. Who is going to say No? And what if the charity is something you disagree with, e.g., National Right to Life, or NARAL? At least Toni Harp and the others were getting their employers money through the legislative process.

And BTW, you can ask for informal (non-published) opinions on ethical issues, and they are answered all the time.

Disgruntled Dem said...

We all have to realize we have a sickness in Connecticut. It is not a partisan illness, and infects Republicans and Democrats equally.


Much of it is big (Rowland, Newton, Sylvester, Ganim, Santapietro) or digusting (Giordano). But much of it is small too-- Amann is a case in point. This kind of stuff goes on ALL THE TIME with lawmakers of both parties.

There is a sloppiness and lackidsical attitude about ethics that pervades the capital. Some lawmakers are paragons of ethics-- but too many are not.

No law will fix this-- not campaign finance reform, not redistricting reform (although both are good ideas). We need a zero-tolerance policy from both parties, issued jointly, that would force people to step down if they breech ethics codes.

Overly harsh? You betcha. We need to go to the other extreme to get Connecticut back in balance.

This is also smart politics for us Dems. Jodi Rell will win next fall because she is honest, not because she has the best policies. Isn't that a sad state of affairs when honesty is a differentiating factor?


Anonymous said...

Good points. All of the inside the capitol people seem to think this is business as usual. This seems to include the press. Why is it Rennie is the only one who seems outraged by this, when the rest of the Courant reporters (?) should have been able to report on this during the session? Obviously the event was advertised, tickets sold, donations solicited. Is everyone up there so jaded that they just don't get it? Or was no one willing to take on the Speaker?

Aldon Hynes said...

I wish to be circumspect, as I was in talking about Newton early on. I suspect none of us have sufficient information at this point to say whether or not there are ethics violations or illegal activities.

I'll be charitable (no pun intended) for a moment and suggest that everyone uses their personal influence to get their way. Whether we are talking about sports stars or super models getting paid for endorsements, or a two year old using their influential powers of screaming, everyone uses influence to get their way.

The question becomes, when is it appropriate, when is it inappropriate, when is it unethical and when is it illegal. As I said, I don't have enough information at this point to say.

However, my initial gut reaction when I read about this (and it is getting widely distributed), is that while the Greater Connecticut Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society may be a more reputable organization than 'Celebrations for Children', the non-profit that Tom Delay has been supporting, or 'Operation Blessing', Pat Robertson's charity that is being pushed by FEMA, there is still something that doesn't seem right about any of these fundraising efforts.

FrankS said...

It's funny that Mr. Rennie never thought ill of Lt. Gov. Rell's active support of various charity causes or of her solicitations for the birthday gift of a vintage Ford Mustang to former Gov. Rowland.

That political figures involve themselves in charitable causes is not new, in fact they are often sought by the charities themselves to participate.

If Amann received an increase in his compensation for these efforts, I would see some cause for the concern, but raising money for worthwhile causes should be encouraged

BDRubenstein888 said...

Sad to say but many many politicians of both parties need a 12 step program about money and ethics.

Anonymous said...

This is wrong. Jim Amann was paid and reaped a personal benefit. The people from the MS Society who hired him also personally benefited inasmuch as salaries, overhead, etc. are paid from donations. Everybody involved traded on, and benefited from the use of the Speaker's Office. Only an idiot would buy the proposition that this wasn't the game plan from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Amann is not even listed as a member of their staff on the Chapter's own web site.

Striker said...

Funny. Jim Amann never asked me for money for anything other than the usual Democratic Leadership PACs. His requests always came in the form of the usual mailed invitation. His "aggressive" staff never asked me for money either. I'm a lobbyist representing plenty of organizations that could give money. Since Jim Amann became speaker he has been a stand up guy. His first year as speaker was more open and less backroom than any of the Lyons' years. Let's hope he continues to grow in his job. Rennie is doing nothing more than burnishing his Republican credentials to make up for his band wagon calls for Rowland's resignation. Rennie is shilling for Rell.

Anonymous said...

Assume that Striker wouldn't object to a full investigation of this matter.

Anonymous said...

BTW anyone ever wonder why Kevin Rennie turned so hard on Rowland. After all Rennie gave Rowland"s nominating speech at the 98 convention.

Rennie wanted to be Rowland's Legal Counsel and was slighted...

Just a curious tidbit from someone who was there...

Chris Mc said...

The implication here is that Amman is selling something in exchange for donations to MS. But what?

Where are the backroom deals directly benefitting private interests? Bid rigging? Anything?


Corporate honchos regularly use their considerable "influence" on behalf of charitable causes. Will Mr. Rennie's high mindedness extend to calls for a curtailment of corporate sponsorship of charity? Of course not.

There is simply no comparison whatsoever to be made between the criminal operation run from the Rowland Administration and this.

This is a Republican hack abusing his position at the Hartford Courant to ingratiate himself with his political retainers.

A transparent hatchet job. Nothing more.

Genghis Conn said...

Rennie is by no means objective. But what Amann is doing, if it's true (and Amann seems to have admitted it), is unethical. If the Speaker was paid for, say, selling Tupperware, and "strongly encouraged" everyone in his caucus to come to Tupperware parties in his office and buy lots of plastic containers... that would be unethical. If the cost of doing business with the Speaker was that you had to buy a few pounds of Tupperware, or else he may not look favorably on your bill, issue, whatever, that would clearly be a violation of ethics. Rennie does a nice job of demonizing Amann, but the facts remain. Public space should not be used for private business, especially when influence, etc., might be up for sale.

It may not be that bad. Amann could be bigger than that. But it still isn't ethical, and it ought to stop.

I think we ought to hold our elected officials to higher stander than corporate officials, don't you?

Chris MC said...

That is a very interesting question there at the end, GC.

But first, let me address my main point in the previous post, which pertains to the implication that something illegal is going on here. To wit:
"...the cost of doing business with the Speaker..."?

What are you and Rennie saying?

Did Rennie say that the Speaker is demanding tribute? Because if he did, I think maybe it's libel.

There is _no_ evidence that there is any such price on the Speaker's door, nor for that matter is there any evidence of a price on Rep. Cafero's door.

The bar needs to be quite a bit higher than the piece and this thread has placed it. Calling for subpoenas is just nonsense.

Is the Speaker doing something unethical? It is rather gray, even for this milieu. Do you really think people who deal with this stuff professionally day in and day out are operating at this level? I think it is far more complicated than that.

In any case, whether or not something "unethical" is going on there is a matter defined by the ethics rules, not some hack's personal agenda, or mine or yours for that matter.

Now, I am quite curious, knowing a bit about your politics from loyally reading your blog over the years ;-) , why you think it is OK for corporations and corporate execs to behave unethically?

Genghis Conn said...

The problem is the possibility of corruption, the appearance of it. It may not exist, for all we know. But then again, it might. Situations like this open themselves to abuses of power. That's why the ethics rules are there in the first place.

Amann could just have been using the wrong forums for his fundraisers. No actual trading of influence could have taken place. It still was not quite ethical, and certainly wasn't smart of Amann to do. He should have known better.

As for your last point, I said that public officals should be held to a higher standard (by virtue of their position), not that corporations and their officers should be held to low standards or no standards at all.

Chris MC said...

Ah, not so fast there GC.

"The possibility of corruption. The appearance of it"? That is exactly my point. There is always the "possiblity" of corruption.

Honestly, do you think that the various individuals who pretty much live in the capitol building would need a message sent that way? It's just silly.

There is no appearance of corruption here, just an individual using his position as a columnist for the Hartford Courant to grind his own axe and pursue his own ends. That's all there is to it.

You've said twice now that corporations and their executives shouldn't be held to a similar ethical standard as public officials.

Why not?

Genghis Conn said...

Public officials, elected officials especially, are entrusted with the public good. Private corporate officials are not. That isn't to say that there ought not to be strict ethical standards for corporations, but I do believe public officials should be that much more responsible.

I can't speak for Rennie's motivations, but Amann's actions rub me the wrong way. We can disagree on this, but, for the reasons outlined above, I still believe those actions to be unethical.

Anonymous said...

Chris Mc: "Corporate honchos" do not normally get paid by the charities they promote. There is no direct personal financial gain or incentive and, if there was,it would not be tolerated. That's the point you miss. Jim Amann was paid to do this, and that makes any comparison to others who do it for no compensation irrelevant. If Jim Amann chose to support a charity out of the goodness of his heart, the objections would be very little. He didn't. He did because he was paid to do it and that distinguishes this situation from the "corporate honchos" in a very significant way.

Chris MC said...

Anonymous - I take your point, although I think you are oversimplifying the argument. But OK.

Now, take mine. Follow the money... where, exactly? It doesn't lead anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Chris Mc: $60,000 of the funds raised landed in Amann's pocket! He was hired as a fund raiser. They weren't hiring him to run at a loss. Where else do you think the 60k came from?

Chris MC said...

But where is the payoff to the donors? No payoff, no problem. Show me the money.

Anonymous said...

Chris Mc: You're right there's no evidence of a payoff, and given that nobody in State Government actually bothers to investigate these things,there probably won't be unless the Feds look into it. If there was, this discussion would be about how long Amann should serve in prison.
If your standard is proof of bribery beyond a reasonable doubt and everything else is fair game, you're right "No Problem." If the Appearance of Impropriety and the erosion of the public's faith in goverment doesn't bother you, so be it.
I will concede that given the total inability of the Legislature and other institutions of State Government to police themselves, both you and Jim Amann are secure in your conclusion of "No problem."