GOP ethics proposal could block other bills

Minority Republicans are pushing for legislation to establish a procedure for investigating misconduct complaints against state senators – a move critics say could stall important bills as the legislature nears its deadline.

In an attempt to assure their proposal will be heard and debated, Senate Republicans have added it as an amendment to more than two dozen bills raised by the legislative committee that oversees ethics. That will force a vote on the issue–unless the bills are never brought up for discussion by the Democratic majority that sets the agenda.

“I find it very disappointing that one committee’s work product has been targeted. They are really messing with the ability to get work done,” said Rep. James F. Spallone, D-Essex, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

The ethics package “does have the potential to hold up these important bills and we already took the time to have this debate last year,” Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney said.

McKinney 5-3-10

Sen. John McKinney

But Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, insists he is not using the amendment as a way to obstruct the committee’s work.

“It’s our right to bring it before the legislature every year. If they don’t bring these bills up then it’s only because the majority is afraid to vote on our amendment,” he said. “We just now spent hours debating a bill they know the governor will veto.”

Democratic Senators last session rejected Republican calls for a standing internal Ethics Committee to investigate complaints against legislators.This year’s measure would require the president pro tem of the Senate to appoint a bipartisan commission to investigate any member’s complaint of misconduct against another member.

The issue has arisen against a backdrop of what Republicans say is disparate handling of ethics issues in recent years. In 2007, Democratic leadership ordered a special investigation into charges that then-Senate Minority Leader Louis C. DeLuca hired someone to threaten his granddaughter’s husband.

Last session the scandal spotlight fell on Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, for billing both the legislature and his political action committee for the same travel expenses, and on Sen. Joseph J. Crisco, D-Woodbridge, for inducing someone to forge a signature on a campaign-finance form. Both were fined by the State Elections Enforcement Commission, but a legislative investigation never was launched.

McKinney said the fines didn’t go far enough.

“It’s perceived they are circling the wagon and protecting their own,” he said. “There are several members of the Senate and the House that have been fined and we have not looked at whether their conduct warrants us reprimanding or even expelling them.”

Looney said Senate Democrats oppose the proposal because it is burdeonsome for such a small 36-member Senate to be required to launch an investigation for every complaint, and the process could be used as a political tool.

“It’s better to create these on an ad hoc basis. That is the system we have in place now,” he said.

Even if the amendment is destined for failure, it has the potential to eat up valuable time in the last three days left before the legislature is constitutionally required to adjourn.

“Every step of the way we have tried to work with [Democrats],” McKinney said. “This deserves a debate.”

Spallone said one possible solution is to roll the Senate GAE bills into other bills that don’t have the Republican amendment.

“But I hope it doesn’t get to that,” he said.

The amendment has been placed on 27 bills, including one ensuring the new voting machines are accessible to those with disabilities, another reducing the number of polling location to save towns money and another forbiding members on ethics panels from donating to political campaigns.