Voting in your employer’s interest? No conflict in Connecticut

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

A staffer speaks to Sen. George Logan after he debated a bill opposed by the water industry.

Sen. George Logan, R-Ansonia, spoke on the Senate floor last week against a drought planning bill opposed by the water industry that employs him. On Tuesday, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, vouched at a press conference for a preliminary concession deal involving his employer, the major public-sector union, AFSCME.

Neither is barred by Connecticut’s narrowly drawn ethics rules from using their elected positions to advocate for their employers. In a state with a part-time, citizen legislature, almost anything goes as long as elected officials or their families don’t end up with money in their pockets as the direct result of legislative action.

The result is action that at least create the appearance of a conflict, such as a House member who pushed nursing home legislation 20 years ago despite being a nursing home administrator. Or legislators who are municipal employees voting on municipal aid.

Aresimowicz said he felt no awkwardness in speaking out or voting on a concession deal relating to members of AFSCME Council 4, which hired him long before he was a state legislator.

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz.

“I have nothing to do with collective bargaining,” Aresimowicz said. “None of my salary is derived from collective bargaining. I can quit my job tomorrow and go sell cars, and it’s not going to change the way I feel towards the folks having the right to unionize and collectively bargain in the private sector or the public sector.”

Logan, who was an in-house lobbyist for the privately held Aquarion Water Company before his election last year to the Senate, remains an Aquarion employee. Like Aresimowicz before him, he sought the advice of the Office of State Ethics on now to navigate the potential pitfalls of being a citizen-legislator.

He said he felt comfortable debating and voting on the drought-planning bill, because it applied to the entire industry, not his employer.

“If something were to come up — it hasn’t happened yet — that would specifically benefit Aquarion in terms of its ability to make a profit, for example, I would recuse myself from those votes,” Logan said.

But he doesn’t have to under state law.

He was advised by the Office of State Ethics he could no longer lobby at the legislature or represent Aquarion before any state agency, but he was free to vote on legislation affecting Aquarion.

“Because Aquarion is not a ‘business with which you are associated,’ you may vote on general legislation that impacts Aquarion as a member of the water company industry so long as the legislation would not result in a direct monetary gain to yourself or a member of your immediate family,” Logan was told by the office.

While common usage might suggest that Logan is “associated” with his employer, not so under ethics rules. He would have to have a significant ownership interest in Aquarion for the water company to meet the definition of a “business with which you are associated.”

“You may also vote on the budget, bond or tax package even if it has a provision specifically benefiting Aquarion,” Logan was advised. “However, you should not participate in the Approps or Finance subcommittees that have jurisdiction over such provisions.”

On the broader question of the appearance of a conflict, legislators are on their own.

“Whether you choose to recuse yourself from such general legislation because of potential appearance of a conflict is up to you,” the Office of State Ethics told Logan. “The code of ethics does not speak to ‘appearances.’ ”

Common Cause has sought rules for years on what might constitute an appearance of a conflict, said Cheri Quickmire, the executive director.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, is an employee of Eversource, the electric utility. Under ethics rules, he can vote on legislation on which Eversource has taken a position, such as its opposition to a bill sought by Dominion Energy that would improve the profitability of its Millstone nuclear power station.

But Kissel, an attorney, said he opts to recuse himself from bills in which the public might see a potential conflict.

Logan said he spoke against the drought planning bill, because he had the expertise to know it was redundant. Bringing professional expertise to the General Assembly is one of the foundational principles of a part-time legislature composed of lawmakers with varied professional experiences, he said.

“We are a citizen legislature,” he said.

Aresimowicz had a similar view.

“We all come here with skill sets that are conducive to our work,” he told reporters “I happen to know a little bit about collective bargaining so I can answer our questions. I don’t do collective bargaining. I teach classes.”

The annual compensation for lawmakers is a minimum of $32,500 in the House and $33,500 in the Senate, with the top leaders getting $38,689.

Legislators are among the state employees required to file annual reports to the Office of State Ethics in which they must disclose sources of income greater than $1,000, a measure meant to at least let the public know of potential conflicts.

They do not need to report the amounts of outside income, but AFSCME Council 4’s public filings show that Aresimowicz was paid $104,168 last year as its education coordinator.

In most years, about two-thirds of legislators hold outside jobs.

Among the occupations currently represented among the 151 House members and 36 senators are allergist, limo driver, airport manager, bunches of lawyers and real-estate brokers,  and owners of a fish market, beach club and bowling alley. There’s a police dispatcher, three retired cops and one former correction officer. At least two are private pilots, including the bowling alley owner.

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