Stop this epidemic of sleazy conflicts of interest at Capitol

Last week I testified before the General Assembly on a bill that would make it a crime for a public official or state employee to receive more than $1,000 from a state contractor, public employee union, or lobbying firm.

I referred to these practices as bribery and sleazy which angered more than a few Capitol insiders. But they should be angry at themselves, not me, because the practices my bill is designed to stop are bribery in many cases and, to anyone not in the "bubble" at the Capitol, they are sleazy.

Why prohibit payments from these organizations? For this reason - they have a large stake in public policy outcomes. A public official receiving anything of value from them has an inherent conflict of interest.

Ordinary citizens are shocked when they learn that many legislators are on the payrolls of state employee unions, state contractors and lobbying firms. Most are surprised that this practice is legal in Connecticut.

Under federal law a bribe occurs when a person provides a public official something of value with the intent of influencing an official act. Is there any question that a public employee union would expect someone in the legislature who is on its payroll to vote in favor of union policy every time? Of course they do. If so, it is a bribe. But these bribes are disguised and excused as jobs.

I hope every legislator who receives money from a state contractor, public employee union, or lobbying firm, as named in the bill, reads the federal bribery and gratuities statutes and consults his or her attorney. The providers of the money should, too. Both may be surprised what they learn.

The problem is that prosecution of this type of bribery is rare because it is hard to prove what was on someone's mind. That is why we need legislation to state, under law, that payments from these sources are presumed to have been made with the intent of influencing official acts - not an unreasonable presumption.

Our legislature is part time and I understand that legislators do not earn enough from their legislative jobs to comfortably support a family. Many have other jobs with organizations that have no stake in their public responsibilities. This, of course, is fine. They are unaffected by the proposed bill. All legislators should restrict their outside income to these non-interested organizations that I estimated in my testimony account for more than 90% of the jobs in Connecticut.

The citizens have a right to the honest services of their public officials. Citizens should not have to wonder if organizations with a big stake in the decisions made in Hartford are improperly influencing their elected representatives. Such influence is an ugly reality of the way our state government works. The only reason our Capitol insiders have gotten away with this for so long is that the public doesn't know about it, which is something I hope to change.

Tom Foley was the 2010 Republican nominee for governor and is founder of The Connecticut Policy Institute. He plans to run again in 2014.

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