Tom Foley, a once-and-future Republican candidate for governor, came to the General Assembly to pitch a broad new conflict-of-interest standard Monday that could be problematic for many members of the part-time state legislature, including a potential GOP rival.
His reward was a bipartisan beat down.
Foley is the author and prime backer of a bill that taps into an issue that he says resonates outside Hartford, but falls on deaf ears at the State Capitol: real and perceived conflicts by lawmakers, who are free to work for public-employee unions and law firms with lobbying arms.
“They’re disgusted. They find it reviling,” Foley told lawmakers. “And everybody here thinks it’s OK, and it’s not.”
In a bill filed at Foley’s behest by Sen. Joseph Markley, R-Southington, no public official, state employee or member of their immediate family could be employed by any organization that, among other things, is minimally supported by state funds or employs a lobbyist.
Foley immediately came under attack from the right and the left, while Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s former senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, gleefully dissected his performance in real time on Twitter.
Occhiogrosso Tweeted that Foley’s appearance was “Christmas” for his opponents and his last Tweet bemoaned it did not last longer: “no no no…don’t end it now! the whole day goes downhill from here.”
Rep. David K. Labriola, R-Oxford, whose brother, Jerry, is GOP state chairman, told Foley during the public hearing that his idea was “absurdly broad. It’s outrageous.”
Labriola said every major employer uses a lobbyist and many are state contractors. He guessed the proposal by Foley, an independently wealthy businessman who largely self-financed his 2010 campaign, would eliminate more than 500,000 residents from running for public office in Connecticut.
One of them might be Malloy. His wife, Cathy Malloy, is the executive director of the nonprofit Greater Hartford Arts Council, a state contractor that received more than $200,000 last year in grants and state contracts. Some years, that is close to 5 percent of its budget.
Under Foley’s bill, anyone whose receives $1,000 in income from an entity that derives 5 percent of its income from the state would be in violation of the new standard. So would members of their immediate families.
“I believe that citizens ought to have confidence and trust in their public officials,” Foley told reporters before his testimony. “That definitely isn’t the case here in Connecticut. We have a corrupt system here people have tolerated way too long with a lot of excuses, and we’ve got to clean it up.”
It might not have been the most diplomatic approach for Foley, who was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Ireland.
Foley called on Malloy to support his effort, but the call seems certain to go unanswered.
“After today’s hearing, I’m not sure if Tom Foley understands his own position on this bill as it is currently drafted,” said Andrew Doba, the governor’s spokesman. “Honestly, I can’t recall another bill that was greeted with such bipartisan confusion when it came to substance.”
The bill has no chance of passage, as is the case for any legislation that, as currently written, could disqualify the continued service of House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
Aresimowicz is employed by AFSCME Council 4, a major public employee union, and Cafero’s wife is an employee of Xerox, which he says employs a lobbyist.
Foley says Cafero’s own employment is a greater concern: He is a lawyer for Brown Rudnick, which has a lobbying practice. Cafero is a potential competitor for the GOP nomination for governor.
Under state law and in the written opinion of the Office of State Ethics, Cafero has no conflict. Foley calls that evidence of a weak standard, not a defense.
Foley was cross-examined at the length by the Government Administration and Elections Committee.
Even the sponsor, Markley, distanced himself from its specific provisions as he praised the overall intent.
“It’s something he brought to my attention as an idea,” Markley said. “I thought it was certainly worthy of discussion. He’s the one who pushed forward on the conceptualization of it. I’m happy to help him.”
Foley’s opponents enjoyed his difficult afternoon, especially his repeated admissions that the bill as written might go further than he intended.
“What was a little surprising, for a man who ran for statewide office, he was someone who was so ill-informed about the bill he wrote,” Cafero said.
“He saw an opportunity to try to score some political points, and it blew up in his face,” Occhiogrosso said.
Foley demurred, saying there is no dishonor in getting beat up pitching ethics in Hartford. He said he was satisified with his performance and confident that bashing the ethical standards of the legislature, which tolerates obvious conflicts of interest, was a political winner.
He hastened to add, “I’m not doing it for politics.”