Soto avoided conflict in skipping key votes

Aside from the budget, two of the biggest issues confronting state lawmakers representing this region are the proposal to allow a third tribally operated casino in East Windsor, and whether power-pricing rules should be changed to help Millstone Power Station in Waterford.

As noted in a recent editorial, the votes of local senators and representatives played a key role in moving legislation on both issues out of the Appropriations Committee. Those votes were particularly critical in the case of the Millstone-related legislation, passed in Appropriations by a narrow 23-21 margin.

In researching the votes, however, it was surprising to find that freshman state Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, had abstained from voting on both the casino and Millstone bills.

When I reached him, Soto said he recognized the importance of the issues to the region — particularly the casino legislation, he said — but after considerable soul searching concluded that voting on the measures would have been inappropriate because of a conflict of interest.

Soto is the founder and director of the New London nonprofit Higher Edge, which guides low-income and first-generation students into and through college. It recently celebrated its fifth anniversary and serves 170 students in high school and college.

Millstone-owner Dominion has pledged $3,200 to support the work of Higher Edge. Meanwhile the nonprofit recently signed a contract to do college advising work for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, Soto said. The tribe operates Foxwoods Resort and would co-manage the proposed East Windsor casino with the Mohegan Tribe.

“It was a tough decision and one I did not settle on until the day of the votes,” Soto said.

While Soto said he did not legally have to abstain because he would get no direct benefit from the legislation, the perception of a conflict was strong enough for him to decide to refrain from voting.

The tribes are lobbying to jointly operate a commercial casino in East Windsor to mitigate the loss of business that will result from the opening next year of an MGM casino in Springfield, Mass. Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun are two of the region’s biggest employers.

Dominion, in asking for a change that would allow Millstone to lock up some of it sales in long-term contracts, contends the future viability of the nuclear station is threatened by a volatile spot-energy market and competition from natural gas.

It is admirable that the 36-year-old lawmaker would err on the side of ethical caution. Soto should not face the conflict often. Pfizer and Dominion are the only large corporate donors listed by Higher Edge.

Soto told me he would have to reconsider his position if the bills came down to a close vote in the House. Changing his position and voting for the bills, after having abstained for ethical reasons in the committee, would be a mistake. Taking an ethical stance should not depend on the closeness of a vote.

Follow-up

Last week, I wrote about touring the Ponemah Mill in the Taftville section of Norwich. Onekey LLC is converting the mill into apartments. The project could be transformative for the former mill village.

What I didn’t mention — because I didn’t know about it — was that the director of construction operations who provided the tour, Finbar O’Neill, has a criminal record in the construction industry.

O’Neill was a minor player in a massive case of corruption involving organized crime and kickbacks to Carpenter Union bosses in the New York area to smooth the way for using cheaper non-union workers on jobs. Day Staff Writer Claire Bessette provided details in a story Friday.

The Onekey president is Paula O’Neill, Finbar's wife, who has no criminal record. That explains the ability to get the state’s help in financing the project. O’Neill insists he learned his lesson and the state says it is keeping close tabs on the Ponemah work, which I still think is a good project.

I should have looked harder into the developer’s background. That’s my lesson learned.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

 

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