Gaffey case prompts renewed call for an ethics committee

The recent resignation and guilty plea of Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey has prompted renewed calls for creation of a  permanent committee to investigate complaints of misconduct against legislators–and renewed opposition from leaders of the Democratic majority.

“I think establishing a standing committee would set a dangerous precedent, leading us down a slippery slope,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney of New Haven, who fears the committee and investigations would be used for political gain.

The issue has been framed in recent years by charges of ethical and criminal misconduct against senators in recent years. In 2007, Senate Minority Leader Louis C. DeLuca pleaded guilty to hiring someone to threaten his granddaughter’s husband; he later resigned his seat.

Earlier this month Gaffey, a Democrat from Meriden, pleaded guilty to larceny for double-billing the state and his political action committee for out-of-state travel, reportedly to cover the cost of a girlfriend who accompanied him.

The scandal spotlight has also fallen on current-Sen. Joseph J. Crisco, D-Woodbridge, for inducing someone to forge a signature on a campaign-finance form.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission fined both Gaffey and Crisco, but the legislature never investigated. An investigation was launched into DeLuca’s actions, but only after he pleaded guilty.

“The precedent that has been followed has worked well,” Looney said.

But Senate Republicans say the method of considering expulsion or censure of a lawmaker only after they are convicted of a crime is not the right approach.

“Elected officials too often break their vow to the public and it takes too long for anything to happen… The perception of the public is that we are protecting ourselves,” Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield said.

They point to previous complaints regarding Gaffey, including his admission in 2002 that he had charged $10,000 in personal expenses, mainly for travel and cell phone usage, to the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority, a quasi-public agency where he is employed. That was followed by reports that he was dating the legislative liaison of Connecticut State University System while he was co-chair of the Education Committee. And his recent criminal charges were preceded last year by a State Election Enforcement Commission action on the double-billing complaint that resulted in a $6,000 fine.

None of those led to any legislative inquiry.

“This is a matter of public trust that we start policing ourselves,” McKinney said.

Nationwide, 18 states have a standing committee to investigate complaints against their colleagues, reports the National Conference of State Legislators. Congress also has ethics committees to investigate its members.

But state Democratic Senators have long insisted the current process is fine, and rejected the Republican proposal in 2009 after an hours-long debate on the floor of the Senate.

Sen. Edward Meyer of Guilford was the lone Democrat to vote for the initiative and his opinion has not since changed, and is even proposing an ethics committee be created this legislative session.

“We should have done this years ago,” he said.

While other Democrats are cool to his proposal, Looney said there is a very real possibility that the General Assembly will debate adopting a “code of conduct” for members to adhere to.

“That is something some of our members have talked about and expressed interest in,” Looney said. “I think there will be a debate on this.”

“It makes sense for us to look at what the standards of conduct should be,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee.

Meyer said this code would be a great first step. “We’ve just had lots of misconduct in the last six years by our members… and intense conflicts of interest,” he said.

The state legislature’s research team in 2008 identified 18 states that had a codes of conduct for its members.

McKinney said he supports a code of conduct, but thinks it needs to be backed with consequences when a lawmaker breaks the rules.

“It’s extremely important that we get this right,” he said.