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What New York Can Learn from Connecticut

Connecticut used a corruption scandal to pass campaign reform. Facing its own problems, New York should do the same.

In the mid 2000s John Rowland was the governor of Connecticut. Elected at age 37, he was the youngest person chosen for that high office. He seemed to be a rising star in the Republican Party.

Then he got embroiled in a pay-to-play scandal which included a hot tub paid for by a state contractor. He resigned the governorship before he could be impeached and he cut a deal with federal prosecutors, which landed him a light sentence of a year and a day. He ended up serving 10 months for depriving the citizens of Connecticut of his honest services.

But apparently Rowland didn’t learn from his first trip to jail. Instead of being scared straight, Rowland apparently got the message that even rank corruption is only punished with a slap on the wrist.

In September 2014, a jury convicted Rowland of conspiracy charges related to hiding work he did for the unsuccessful congressional campaign of Lisa Wilson-Foley. The original indictment is here. The crimes charged included having candidates for federal office (in this case Congress) file false reports with the FEC that obscured the fact that Rowland was a campaign consultant.

Interestingly, Rowland’s wasn’t the typical “dark money” scandal where donors try to hide their identities.  Here allegedly Rowland was trying to hide his identity as a vendor for the Wilson-Foley campaign. The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), which was enacted as a post-Watergate reform, requires full disclosure of money going into and out of campaigns. Thus his subterfuge was a crime.  Rowland had also served in Congress. So he probably should have known better.

And so on March 18, 2015, Rowland found himself back in federal court. As NBC News reported, “Former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland has been sentenced to 30 months in a campaign fraud case, 10 years to the day he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for accepting illegal gifts while in office.”  The prosecutors asked for 4 years but in the end the judge gave him 2.5 years.

Hartford Courant reporter Colin McEnroe argued that Rowland found himself back in legal hot water because “[p]ost-prison, he was mobbed by well-wishers at public events, from political dinners to funerals. His enablers treated him like a guy who just got back from fighting Ebola in Liberia, not hanging around the prison weight room…” Unless this conviction is overturned on appeal, it looks like he has a round trip ticket back to being a guest of the state.

This is a sad day for Connecticut and the Rowland family.  But it is also a good chance to reflect on money in politics and where we are with reform efforts. 

The (first) Rowland scandal from 2005 did produce some good things for Connecticut including a comprehensive campaign finance overhaul that included stronger pay-to-play restrictions for state contractors and the availability of public financing for statewide and legislative offices. Connecticut’s public financing system, which is called the Citizens’ Election Program, has enjoyed high adoption rates and allows qualified candidates to run without reliance on private money.

New York State is facing a big corruption trial of its own. Proving that corruption is a bipartisan malady, in New York it is a Democrat who is in trouble. This time it is Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York Assembly, who is facing down prosecutors after being in office for two decades.  Silver stands accused of taking bribes among other crimes.

Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout, wrote in The New York Times, that we should “[t]hink of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes.” And one parallel between Silver and Rowland is that before they were indicted for crossing the legal line, both men received many campaign donations from the same people who ended up being featured in their criminal indictments.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara who is prosecuting Mr. Silver said:

“Politicians are supposed to be on the people’s payroll, not on secret retainer to wealthy special interests they do favors for. These charges go to the very core of what ails Albany – a lack of transparency, lack of accountability, and lack of principle joined with an overabundance of greed, cronyism, and self-dealing.”

Connecticut, which had earned the unfortunate nickname “Corrupticut” during the Rowland gubernatorial years, made lemonade out of lemons by crafting campaign laws that were better for voters including its laudable public financing system. New York State should do the same and finally enact a fair elections package that includes public financing for candidates to New York state’s offices. Albany needs to finally put the dark days of Silver behind it, turn a page, and pass some meaningful campaign finance reforms.

(Photo: AP)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.