07.01.2008 0

Connecticut Ethics Board: Lawmakers under Investigation Entitled to Tax-Funded Lawyers

  • On: 07/16/2008 19:59:23
  • In: Government Transparency
  • Connecticut’s Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board decided on March 27th that lawmakers who are under ethics investigations are entitled to taxpayer-funded staff lawyers to defend them.

    The Board’s decision came in a close 5-4 vote which rejected an advisory opinion by the Office of State Ethics which stated that if a lawmaker was under an ethics investigation, he or she must hire their own attorney. The decision was justified by former Democrat House Speaker, Ernest Abate, who sits on the Board, on the grounds that “lawmakers’ high profile open them to unjustified attacks, so they deserve some free legal defense.”

    The advisory opinion’s rejection has put the Office of State Ethics back to the drawing board:

    “Robert N. Worgaftik, chairman of the advisory board that oversees the ethics office, pushed for approval of the opinion and said afterward that its rejection gives legislators ‘carte blanche.’

    “Trying to salvage the opinion, he persuaded the board to revisit the issue in two months. Opponents said the board needs to define a point in the enforcement process — a ‘trigger,’ they called it — up to which it would be OK for a lawmaker to use a staff lawyer so a falsely accused legislator does not have to spend personal funds.”

    Finding such a “trigger” could be problematic though, according to the author of the advisory opinion:

    “[A]ssistant general counsel Brian J. O’Dowd, who drafted the opinion, said ethics laws provide no basis to establish such a ‘trigger.’ To do that, the ethics agency would, in effect, be writing its own state law — or at least ‘inserting something in the law that doesn’t exist there,’ O’Dowd said…

    “Connecticut’s ethics laws do say that an official is entitled to reimbursement for legal expenses if he is exonerated in an ethics case that progresses to a hearing.

    “But the problem, O’Dowd said, is that no one knows in advance what the outcome will be — and if a violation is found, taxpayers would have wrongly subsidized the defense. The only way to solve the problem, as the law is written, is to ban use of the state-paid caucus attorneys, he said.”

    With the Board’s current decision, whether a lawmaker is guilty or not of an ethics violation, taxpayers will wind up paying for the lawmaker’s attorney fees, which is precisely what the Office of State Ethics was attempting to put a stop to.

    ALG Perspective:
    Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for corrupt politicians’ attorney fees, and they should in part thank former Speaker Abate and also former State Rep. G. Kenneth Bernhard, who also voted against the advisory opinion, for the fact that they still must. ALG would like to commend those members of the Board who did vote in favor of the opinion. And Connecticut should either prohibit the use of State-paid attorneys in representing lawmakers in ethics investigations, or provide that those found guilty of an ethics violation reimburse the State when they do use State-paid attorneys. While everyone is entitled to an adequate defense when accusations are brought against them, State legislators are not entitled to free attorneys when their own ethical lapses land them in hot water.

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