CHRIS POWELL: Corruption in Connecticut changes party allegiance

Published on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 21:10

Two decades ago government corruption in Connecticut was a spectacularly Republican phenomenon.

First state Treasurer Paul Silvester, appointed by Gov. John G. Rowland to fill a vacancy, was caught taking bribes for awarding pension fund management contracts. Silvester and nine others were convicted on federal charges and Silvester went to prison.

Then Rowland himself was caught taking from state contractors gifts that might as well have been bribes. Facing a bipartisan impeachment inquiry by the General Assembly, Rowland resigned, was indicted on federal charges, confessed, and went to prison too.

But today corruption in government in Connecticut is mainly a Democratic phenomenon, if only because there is so little Republican administration anywhere. Two Democratic state legislators now are under federal indictment.

The first, Bridgeport state Sen. Dennis A. Bradley, is charged with campaign finance fraud along with his treasurer, and one of his campaign aides has already pleaded guilty.

The second legislator, West Haven state Rep. Michael DiMassa, who resigned this week, was also an aide to the City Council and is charged with embezzling more than $600,000 from the city's federal virus epidemic relief money, using phony invoices from a dummy company. The scheme described in the indictment seems so threadbare that it has impugned the rest of city government, raising suspicion DiMassa had help.

But then management long has been lacking in government in West Haven. Because of its former insolvency, since 2017 the city has been operating under the supervision of the state Municipal Accountability Review Board.

Last month a City Hall employee in the Democratic bastion of Hartford was fired for destroying financial records of the office where she handled cash and fee payments. Her office had just come under audit.

Of course there always will be corruption in politics and government, and Connecticut Democrats may argue that the recent charges are not really so much when the party runs nearly everything here. But as Republican legislators note, with state and municipal governments now rolling in more federal emergency aid than they know what to do with, comprehensive auditing is required.

The state Office of Policy and Management promises more auditing, but that office belongs to the governor, also a Democrat, who, preparing to seek re-election next November, may not be eager to overturn every rock in every city and town with a Democratic administration. Ideally some of the emergency federal money should be used to hire outside, politically unconnected auditors – a lot of them.

But then little in government in Connecticut is seriously audited, and the fraud suggested by the indictments of the legislators and the firing of the Hartford City Hall employee is the least of the fraud problem. For expensive policies from which thousands of state and local government employees and contractors draw their livelihoods long have failed to educate, lift the dependent to self-sufficiency, and repair the cities, even as those policies keep devouring hundreds of millions of dollars each year without getting a fraction of the attention given to West Haven by the "accountability review" board.

Since they sustain so many dependents, those failing policies might defeat even an army of auditors.

Presiding in the DiMassa case, U.S. District Judge Sarah A.L. Merriam said the defendant is being treated for gambling addiction. The indictment says DiMassa used some of the embezzled money to buy thousands of dollars in casino gambling chips.

But having recently legalized sports betting and put itself into the bookmaking business, state government will just shrug at West Haven's financial loss and the wreckage of DiMassa's life. They will be considered a cost of doing business, sure to be offset by state government's increased take from gambling, which includes monthly tribute from the state's two Indian casinos.

Casino gambling and embezzlement always go hand in hand and no thought will be given to this latest evidence.

But the governor and legislature at least should wonder why the latest political corruption indictments are federal. Do Connecticut's own prosecutors have no resources for pursuing political corruption, or just no interest?

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Wednesday, 27 October 2021 21:10. Updated: Wednesday, 27 October 2021 21:13.