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Commentary--Personal Privacy Is No Excuse For        Rowland's Scheme For Secret Income



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Personal Privacy Is No Excuse For       

Rowland’s Scheme For Secret Income


Governor Rowland’s former state treasurer, Paul J. Silvester, has pleaded guilty to federal felony charges of corruption and has just been the main prosecution witness in the politically lurid trial and conviction of some accomplices.

The governor’s former deputy chief of staff, Lawrence Alibozek, has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges that, while yet to be detailed, implicate others high in the Rowland administration.

The governor himself has just been fined $9,000 by the state Ethics Commission for letting some rich state-contractor friends treat him to vacations at their homes in Florida and Vermont.

The governor has charged entirely personal expenses to a credit card given to him, presumably for political business, by the Republican State Central Committee, and is under investigation for it by the state Elections Enforcement Commission.

And yet through his press spokesman the other day the governor proclaimed the right of his wife not to let the public know about gifts she accepts from state contractors, such as the trip she took to Florida that was paid for by the recipient of a lucrative state lease described by the attorney general as a “sweetheart deal.”

No, the governor’s spokesman says, gifts the governor’s wife takes from state contractors are matters of the Rowland family’s personal privacy.

After all, the governor’s spokesman says, Mrs Rowland’s free trip to Florida was reported to the Ethics Commission (if only privately), along with the trips for which the governor was fined, and the commission declined to take any action on it, so it must have been legal. The governor and his wife may have taken other free trips and gifts from people doing business with the state, but if the Ethics Commission won’t disclose them, the governor’s office says, it won’t either. (The governor’s office acknowledged Mrs Rowland’s Florida trip only grudgingly after a newspaper discovered a cryptic reference to it in Ethics Commission documents.)

Some of this stuff may have been legal but all of it is appalling. For as the editor of The Washington Monthly, Charles Peters, famously observed, the scandal in government is usually not what is illegal but rather what is perfectly legal. Indeed, the Ethics Commission next year may ask the General Assembly to patch what could be considered a terrible loophole in state ethics law, which seems to regulate closely the interaction of government officials and lobbyists but not that of government officials and contractors.

Amid his administration’s failings of ethics and a new low in public confidence in state government, the governor’s claim of personal privacy for gifts he and his wife get from contractors may be construed as an invitation to corruption. Such gifts must not be taken because they can be hard to distinguish from bribes or kickbacks.

This would be awful enough but things well may be worse already. For the governor’s own vacations at the expense of contractors, his personal misuse of the party credit card –– still not publicly totaled and fully explained –– and his refusal to be forthcoming even amid the fines and the elections commission’s investigation are unlikely to have been coincidences. Together they powerfully suggest a scheme by the governor to solicit secret income, in large part at the expense of the integrity of state government.

This scheme likely was undertaken not long after the governor insisted in 1998 that his office be removed from legislation raising the salaries of the statewide elected officials, who were then grossly underpaid. Rowland, it now seems, did not want to have to defend a pay raise in his campaign for reelection in 1998 but, returned to office, found that he needed the additional income no less and that state contractors could become good friends. He also found that his campaign had a surplus of more than $400,000. He forwarded it to the Republican State Central Committee and the party gave him a credit card. Was this the conversion of campaign funds to personal use?

That was what destroyed the career of US Senator Thomas J. Dodd, another talented Connecticut politician who cared too little about how he came by money in office. Dodd misappropriated his campaign money directly, without laundering it through a party organization.

Maybe things have not yet gotten so bad with Rowland. But as long as he suggests that his and his wife’s acceptance of gifts from state contractors and his charging personal expenses to the Republican Party are matters of personal privacy, he invites Connecticut to think the worst. For his own sake as much as the state’s, he should come clean and make amends quickly. His administration has given the US attorney’s office enough to do already.

(Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.)

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