Unseemly links between lobbyists and state government are coming to light regularly these days, serving up curious examples of loopholes in Connecticut’s ethics law, like the one allowing lobbyists to accept state jobs as long as they are with the executive or judicial branch.
Lobbyists cannot work for the legislative branch.
The latest example, uncovered by Hartford Courant columnist Jon Lender, is of legislator-turned-lobbyist Gardner Wright, who both lobbies the state on behalf of a company with interest in the state’s worker’s compensation rules and chairs the state’s Worker’s Compensation Advisory Board.
Until recently, a similar relationship existed between the lobbyist for private colleges in Connecticut, who while running that organization also ran the state’s student loan authority, a quasi-public organization – a relationship that was sanctioned under the state’s ethics rules.
The state changed the governance of the student loan authority in July of last year, but until then CHESLA – Connecticut Higher Education Loan Authority – was housed at the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges (CCIC) and Judith Greiman, who is a registered lobbyist with the state, was both the president of CCIC and the executive director of CHESLA.
CHESLA is now under the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority (CHEFA), and Jeanette Weldon, a managing director at CHEFA, is now CHESLA’s executive director.
While the arrangement has been changed, the relationship between CHESLA and CCIC still raises questions about what roles lobbyists should play in state government – especially in quasi-public bodies where the state ethics rules are not clear-cut.
Recent news stories about former Speaker of the House Tom Ritter’s jobs as both a lobbyist for firm Brown Rudnick and as an attorney for the quasi-public Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, have shown how murky the state’s ethics rules are for lobbyists. In the case of CHESLA, while Judith Greiman was barred from lobbying the state on CHESLA’s behalf, she could lobby the state on behalf of CCIC, but not if it directly related to a matter before CHESLA.
There were no ethics complaints made during the time that Greiman ran CHESLA, and there are no indications that she used the position to directly benefit herself or the colleges she represents.
In an interview, Greiman said the arrangement between CHESLA and CCIC existed for over 30 years, and that it was initially created to make it cheaper for the state to run the student loan authority.
According to CHESLA’s annual report, CHESLA paid CCIC $106,000 in 2012 for “administrative services.” The authority was housed in CCIC’s offices, and Greiman managed the authority’s two full-time employees. CHESLA’s administrative costs are paid for by the authority’s revenues, which come from interest payments on loans and other investment income.
“CHESLA was the most efficiently-run, low-cost quasi-public agency in the history of the state,” said Greiman.
Greiman said she recognizes that if CHESLA was created today, it would not be set-up in the same way. But, she said she did not think there was a conflict between her role as president and lobbyist for CCIC and her role as executive director of CHESLA.
It was in the colleges’ interest that CHESLA be run in an efficient way, but CCIC wasn’t lobbying CHESLA on student loan issues, said Greiman.
Carol Carson, executive director for the Office of State Ethics, said there is nothing in state statutes that directly prohibits a lobbyist from taking a job with a quasi-public agency. Lobbyists are permitted to work for the executive and judicial branches of state government, as well as quasi-public agencies, but they are not permitted to work for the legislative branch, she said.
In the case when a lobbyist is also a state employee, their public employment should be kept separate from their private employment, said Carson.
When asked whether this was an ethical arrangement, Carson stressed that it was legal and that she couldn’t comment on whether it was ethical.
In the case of CCIC and CHESLA, Carson said a 1994 State Ethics Commission letter outlining the relationship between CCIC and CHESLA provides cover for CCIC employees who lobby the state and also work for CHESLA.
The letter, written by Rachel Rubin, an attorney for the state, to then-president of CCIC Michael Gerber, provides an example of how muddied the waters can become.
“You have asked whether involvement in the contract will be considered ‘administrative lobbying,’… As we discussed, since your involvement with this contract will be due to your position as Executive Director of CHESLA and not as president of CCIC, you will not be deemed to be engaging in lobbying activities,” the letter says.
In another letter written in 1994 by Rubin to Terence Mariani, the then-governor’s legal counsel, Rubin said it is permissible for a registered lobbyist to “be appointed as a member of a quasi-public agency. Although the Code restricts a lobbyist from accepting employment with the general assembly, it does not have a restriction regarding the executive or judicial branches nor with the quasi-public agencies.”
The letter goes on to say that lobbyists who work for the state in any capacity are not allowed to lobby the state on issues tied to the agency they work for.