Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, a potential challenger to Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy next year, says the governor violated ethics laws by attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner Saturday as a guest of People magazine. The publication picked up Malloy’s travel, lodging and dinner expenses of $1,000.

“The governor is in clear violation of state ethics laws,” McKinney said. “Allowing a corporation to pay for his travel and entertainment expenses on a non-official visit constitutes inappropriate use of the governor’s office for personal financial gain — period. Gov. Malloy needs to account for his actions and make amends.”

Not exactly, at least not the part about a clear violation of ethics laws. Historically, state ethics regulators have granted wide latitude about when a governor is acting in an official capacity. In the context of the White House bash, was the tuxedo-clad governor talking business at all as he partied with D.C.’s A-list?

Carol Carson, who oversees the Office of State Ethics, declined to comment on the specifics of McKinney’s statement, but she said there are 18 exceptions to the ethics law that generally prohibits gifts of more than $100 to public officials in Connectiut.

An official can accept an outside group picking up expenses under certain circumstances when an official is acting in his official capacity, she said.

The governor’s legal counsel, Luke Bronin, said Malloy was in Washington as governor, but he will seek an opinion from the Citizens Advisory Board. Either the board will greenlight the trip, or you can expect the governor to mitigate the political fallout by writing a check for $1,000.

(By the way, whether the Office of State Ethics eventually agrees on the law, is it ever a good thing when a lawyer has to explain your attendance at a party?)

McKinney, who is demonstrating a tougher political side as he considers a run for governor, seems to sense that Bronin’s might be more persuasive with ethics regulators than the public.

“The governor cannot transform a social event like this into a business meeting merely by talking up the state over champagne and hors d’oeuvres, nor can he transform this into a legitimate business trip by scheduling some brief ancillary meeting with a federal official or business group,” McKinney said.

“If the governor is seriously claiming that his attendance at the White House Correspondents Dinner was legitimate state business, he should produce the invitation to attend describing the purpose, the agendas for the event, a list of discussion topics, meeting minutes, and any other evidence of the official purpose and business conducted on behalf of the state.”

Bronin doesn’t see it that way.

“Gov. Malloy was invited, in his official capacity, to attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner by People Magazine. The Office of the Governor has received past guidance from the Office of State Ethics indicating that a non-restricted donor (as opposed to a restricted donor) may make payment for expenses that public officials may incur to travel to events, attendance at which will facilitate state action or functions.”

A restricted donor is a lobbyist, state contractor or party regulated by the official.

According to emails released by the governor’s press office, Malloy first was approached about the dinner on January 31 in an email from New York lawyer Richard Gordon to the governor’s communication director, Andrew Doba.

Elizabeth Gleick, the executive editor of People, followed up with her email on Feb. 7, inviting Malloy and his wife, who did not attend.

The emails say nothing about the governor’s expenses.

Bronin said the governor would have been justified in having his office pay the expenses.

“Gov. Malloy’s attendance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner provided an invaluable opportunity to advance Connecticut’s interests,” Bronin said. “The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is a unique gathering of senior Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and business and media leaders from around the country. The Governor’s Office could have paid for Governor Malloy’s trip to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

“Since People Magazine, a non-restricted donor with no business with the State, offered to relieve the Connecticut taxpayers of that expense, the Governor’s Office accepted the invitation. Out of an abundance of respect for Connecticut’s ethics laws, the Governor’s Office will seek a formal advisory opinion of the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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