Paul Stern: No more ‘Corrupticut,’ but less interest in opening government

About a year ago, The Center for Public Integrity in Washington enlisted 50 journalists, including me, in a massive project measuring the degree to which state governments were accountable, open to public scrutiny and susceptible to corruption.

To my surprise, Connecticut ranked second, next to New Jersey, as the most transparent of all 50 states.

This rating was the product of a 300-plus point analysis of state ethics rules, financial disclosure requirements, elections statutes, freedom-of- information laws, procurement practices and a host of other indicators, including the effectiveness of anti-corruption law enforcement. 

The state’s final score was, of course, a relative ranking; and to put it in perspective I must twist an old saying:  In a nation of the blind, Connecticut proved to have one good eye.

It is unlikely our fair state (or New Jersey) would have shown so well if it were not for the abysmal standards in states like Georgia (No. 50) or West Virginia, for example, where the governor took a car on a four-year “test drive” while the dealer enjoyed millions in state contracts. . .

  . . . and were it not for the fallout from Connecticut’s own not-so-distant history of corruption in every branch of state government.

In an era of corrupt practices about a decade ago, even the most insensitive lawmakers and apathetic public could not ignore “Corrupticut’s” need for reform. Then-Gov. John Rowland, in league with state contractors, had used his office as a criminal enterprise. State Treasurer Paul Silvester and his friends had plundered the treasury through rigged investments and finder’s fees. Lobbyists bought the legislature, and the judiciary treated the courts like a secret and exclusive club.

The worst offenders have all moved on now (and, in some cases, are back home from prison and on the radio), and can proudly say their misdeeds inspired the creation of systems and laws to prevent similar abuses in the future. As time has passed, improving public integrity, once high on every aspiring politician’s priority list, has been displaced by newer issues like health-care costs, gun control and economic recovery.

“Transparency “ is the buzz word and surviving remnant of that era;  and thanks to nosey journalists, some determined public officials and the Internet, Connecticut citizens now have unprecedented access to a vast array of information on spending, elections and ethics enforcement, government contracts, educational data, budgets, reports, bills, public testimony… the list is nearly inexhaustible.

Following the passage of Public Act 10-155, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration was able to launch Transparency.ct.gov, a huge search tool that provides the public with thousands of records on state grants, contracts, payroll and pension payments to individuals and other information.

Like every smart politician, Malloy advocates transparency as a fundamental government principle. However, he had no problem combining the state’s various watchdog agencies into one operation and, more importantly, limiting its staff and ability to police violations of ethics, elections and freedom-of-information laws.

More recently, State Comptroller Kevin Lembo has created Open Connecticut, a collection of data from various state agencies regarding state tax revenue, borrowing, financial projections and spending. For the few who might actually have the time and interest, there is even a tool for calculating the impact various tax increases would have on state revenue.

 Lembo has also proposed setting up “a publicly accessible online database for information on state tax credit and economic assistance programs.” He is among those public officials who give more than lip service to the need for more government accountability

Many state lawmakers  and bureaucrats are not.

Perhaps driven by fear and a disproportionate aversion to risk, their impulses lately seem to be in the direction of limiting, rather than enlarging, the public’s access to its own information.

Some, perhaps, are motivated by the misguided notion that the potential to abuse public information is greater than the potential to use it for everyone’s benefit. This was probably the case when Reps. Debra Lee Hovey, R-Monroe; Dan Carter, R-Bethel; and Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, recently proposed to seal the death certificates of children. Following the horrible massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, they can be forgiven for their irrational attempt to comfort their constituents by eroding their freedoms.

Less forgivable are a lot of other things which evolve from the power elite’s perception that public accountability is a nuisance and impediment to efficient and profitable governance.  These are ably articulated by the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

For one, there is the legislature’s common practice of passing last-minute amendments to laws without the benefit of public hearings.

And there are some unfathomable rulings by the courts.  Probably the most ludicrous of these was the State Supreme Court’s ruling to prohibit the disclosure of some public employee addresses in municipal records such as grand lists and property transfers. 

As the CCFI observed on its website: “Such records, basic in everyday commerce, and fundamental guarantors of fairness and competence in local government, had been maintained complete and open to the public since Colonial times.”

Were he alive to witness it, Thomas Jefferson would probably have cried.
               

Paul Stern, the author of this piece, is a resident of Mansfield and an editor for CTMirror.org. He has worked as a journalist in New Jersey, Florida and Connecticut for 39 years.  

Comments

comments