Citizen-legislators juggle duties, jobs

Who has a state legislator on the payroll?

Three public employee unions have one. So do Northeast Utilities, the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, Tweed-New Haven Airport, municipalities and non-profits that rely on state funding, and single-issue advocates like the Marijuana Policy Project.

About 70 percent of legislators hold jobs outside the General Assembly, bringing both real-world experiences and potential conflicts of interest to their part-time jobs as citizen-legislators.

To minimize the potential conflict, legislators and other top state officials have for 33 years been required to submit annual personal financial disclosure forms listing sources of income, state contracts, and real estate and stock holdings for themselves and their spouses. However, the public has never had easy access to the forms.

Despite that, some legislators’ sources of income are well known: House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, is a lawyer for a law firm with a subsidiary that made $1 million lobbying the legislature in 2008. His employment, which has been cleared by ethics lawyers, has been the subject of several news stories.

Lesser known is that Rep. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, who has led the charge for legalizing medical marijuana in Connecticut, listed the Marijuana Policy Project as one of her sources of income. According to the group’s public tax returns, she was paid $113,000 over three years to lobby legislators in other states.

Sen. Toni N. Harp, D-New Haven, is employed by the Hill Health Center, which received $387,000 in state funds in 2008, including $121,000 for a program she oversees to help the homeless, according to her statement. Harp helps write the state budget as the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Occupations: General Assembly

Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven employ legislators who vote every year on state funding formulas that deliver hundreds of millions of dollars to their communities. Two legislators also hold paid elective offices in Brookfield and Griswold.

Until he became speaker in January 2009, Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, worked for a state employees’ union. Three other House Democrats–David McCluskey of West Hartford, Joseph Aresimowicz of Berlin and Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven–still work for unions that represent state workers.

“There are very few jobs you can hold that don’t have some connotation about something,” said House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield. “They all involve some sort of public policy.”

Legislators say that potential conflicts or appearances of conflicts are unavoidable in the legislature, where salaries range from $28,000 for the rank-and-file to $38,689 for the leaders, plus an expense stipend of $4,500 for House members and $5,500 for senators.

“You got to make a living outside this place to support a family,” Cafero said. “So everyone’s got to have a job. Or most people do, anyway.”

Cafero is a lawyer at Brown Rudnick, which has a lobbying unit led by former House Speaker Thomas D. Ritter, D-Hartford. Cafero said he is not an equity partner and derives no income from the firm’s lobbying.

Fifteen of 36 senators and 38 of 151 House members reported no outside wages in their latest disclosures. Most of them relied on pensions, investments or spousal income to supplement legislative salaries.

A few say they have struggled to find an outside job they can do while serving in the legislature.

Until 1971, the legislature met every other year for only four months. It now meets annually, for three months in even years and five months in odd years. But duties such as committee meetings and special sessions can call members to Hartford any time of  year.

“We met every month last year. That’s not a part-time legislature,” McCluskey said.

Legislators in both parties say that the evolution of the legislature into a 12-month job has limited outside employment opportunities.

Sen. Andrew M. Maynard, D-Stonington, reported no income, no real estate and no significant investments on his disclosure form. He lives off his legislative salary, though not by choice.

“I’m working desperately to find additional work. When I first arrived here, I had the benefit of a little cushion from savings and the sale of the portion of a home I lived in,” said Maynard, who was elected in 2006. “Frankly, it’s been a difficult road.”

The leaders of both chambers, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and the House speaker, Donovan, primarily live off their legislative pay, plus their spouses’ income. Donovan also teaches part-time at the University of Hartford.

After becoming speaker in January 2009, Donovan resigned from his job with an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union representing community-college employees. Williams once worked for the Connecticut Bar Association and Save the Children.

Donovan said he quit his union job after becoming speaker, even though he held the job while House majority leader.

“I’d be more in the limelight, and my opponents would use my job as a reason to put into the public eye questions about my motivations,” he said. Donovan said he grew tired of the second-guessing.

State ethics rules allow legislators to vote on bills that affect their professions and, in many cases, even their employers, so long as the legislation does not specifically benefit them.

“You look at the ethics code, it’s like Swiss cheese. There are so many holes,” said Rep. Christopher L. Caruso, D-Bridgeport, who has suggested that the state consider a full-time legislature. His idea never has attracted serious support.

The issue of potential conflicts rarely is publicly raised at the Capitol.

“How often do we hear and see people recuse themselves?” asked Karen Hobert Flynn, the national vice president of Common Cause, which has unsuccessfully sought legislation barring lawmakers from voting on bills that directly affect their employers.

The rarity of recusals and abstentions is a sign that the conflict standard is too weak, she said.

Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, a counsel at Northeast Utilities, said he was told he could vote in 2007 on a major energy-regulation bill favored by NU, but he abstained from debating or voting on the measure that became law.

“I try to go out of my way to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It’s not the letter of the law, but the spirit,” Kissel said.

The major restriction on his work for the utility is that he is barred as a legislator from representing the company before the Department of Public Utilities Control or other state agencies, he said.

McCluskey said he never has been forced to abstain on a vote over a conflict with his employment by the Connecticut State Employees Association, but has avoided service on the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

“Do I get involved in issues affecting state employees? Yeah, I do. I think that falls under the rubric of being a citizen legislator,” McCluskey said. “Here is the dilemma. Where is the line drawn between a part-time legislature and conflict of interest?”

Rep. Timothy Larson, D-East Hartford, said he feared he violated the ethics rules in his first weeks as a legislator, when he read a letter into the record at a public hearing in his role as the executive director of Tweed-New Haven Airport.

He said he was told by ethics lawyers he did nothing wrong, but he has since decided to steer clear of mixing airport and legislative business.

“This is what I have clear delineation on: I cannot lobby directly any legislator for funds for Tweed. I recuse myself from any discussion or anything that talks about directly finding money for the airport. That’s been my goal line, my boundary,” Larson said.

Larson said he can vote on the budget and bond package, even if it has money for Tweed; the same is true for employees of municipalities and non-profit agencies that receive state funding.

Bacchiochi said she saw no conflict in leading the debate on legalizing medical marijuana in 2007, when she was being paid by the Marijuana Policy Project.

The national advocacy group hired Bacchiochi after hearing her talk about how marijuana was the only relief for her husband as he was dying of cancer. Bacchiochi said her advocacy predated her time in public office or her work for the Marijuana project.

“Clearly, every single person in the legislature and everyone who follows marijuana policy in Connecticut knows, this started for me long before I came into the legislature,” Bacchiochi said. “For that reason, I don’t have any issue with it. I don’t think people would perceive it as anything other than me pursuing something that is important to me, personally.”

Bacchiochi said she had no concern about a real or perceived conflict in 2007, when legalization was passed by the Connecticut legislature and vetoed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

According to the group’s public tax returns, it paid Bacchiochi $5,000 in 2005, $53,000 in 2006 and $55,163 in 2007 to lobby legislators in other states to legalize medical marijuana. No tax return was available for 2008, when Bacchiochi still listed the group as a source of income.

The payments reimbursed Bacchiochi for her time and travel expenses, she said.

She said has stopped working for the group, saying the out-of-state travel was too time consuming. Bacchiochi also runs a real-estate management business.

After coming out as one of the nation’s few openly gay African-American elected officials, Rep. Jason Bartlett, D-Bethel, briefly got a job with a Washington-based gay-rights group, the National Black Justice Coalition.

Bartlett said he sought the job, because it seemed to allow him to do advocacy work that presented no financial conflicts with his job as a legislator. He left because the group had funding troubles, and the out-of-state travel became an issue.

Rep. Tom Reynolds, D-Ledyard, a consultant who advises non-profits on fundraising and planning, said the time demands of the legislature have sharply curtailed his practice, as have concerns about the appearance of conflicts if his clients received state funds.

“It’s another reason I don’t do too much — not because it’s legally prohibited, but it’s an appearance of a conflict,” he said.