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Legislators' trips abroad apparently above board

Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, and Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, have both taken trips to Turkey at the expense of a nonprofit with offices in Connecticut. Rep. Ernie Hewett, D-New London, went to Taiwan at the expense of that nation's government.

Office of State Ethics records and correspondence pertaining to overseas trips taken by General Assembly members representing districts in southeastern Connecticut provide insight into the ambiguities of determining whether legislators' travel plans align with the state Code of Ethics for public officials.

The Code of Ethics allows public officials to accept reimbursement from non-Connecticut government entities for certain expenses associated with travel to events such as conferences. Following a trip, officials must file forms detailing which expenses were covered.

Connecticut's laws governing gifts to public officials fall in the expansive middle ground of state ethics laws for public officials, according to Natalie O'Donnell Wood, program principal with the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislators.

On one end of the spectrum in laws governing what constitutes a gift and what officials may accept are "no cup of coffee states," where officials are barred from accepting almost any gift or coverage of costs. On the other end are states that barely limit what officials may accept, Wood said.

All but 14 states have disclosure requirements for officials who accept gifts and honoraria, according to NCSL. Vermont, Iowa and New Mexico are among the states that don't require disclosure.

"I think that you've seen both kinds of arguments play out in states," said Wood. She described two basic questions underlying the ethics of gift laws: Is it better to disclose? Or is it better to just outright prohibit?

'Gray areas'

"I think gift laws kind of help to ward against the gray areas, but they're not perfect," she said.

In correspondence pertaining to a September 2011 trip to Turkey that Ryan participated in, the state ethics office initially advised members of the General Assembly they would have to pay all expenses themselves but later approved the trip contingent upon changes to the itinerary.

Records show that the trip was offered by the non-profit Turkey Cultural Center, which has offices in New York and Connecticut. According to its mission statement, the center aims at "promoting a better understanding that is based on mutual respect between the individuals of the United States of America and those of Turkish background and/or origin."

Ryan, who is a professor of physics at the University of New Haven, said the trip is typically offered to academics in addition to legislators.

Brian O'Dowd, the office's deputy general counsel, told former Rep. Maria Lopez Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, when she inquired about the trip in August 2011 that the itinerary suggested the trip was "nothing more than a sightseeing tour and thus does not fit within the gift-to-the-state or necessary-expenses provisions," according to a summary of the phone call.

State law defines gifts to the state as "goods or services that are provided to a state agency or quasi-public agency that facilitate state or quasi-public agency action or functions."

A few weeks after Kirkley-Bey's call, the state ethics office approved the trip to Turkey based on a revised itinerary that added meetings with Turkish government officials and a trip to a school, phone records show.

The state ethics office stipulated that Connecticut officials would have to pay expenses associated with sightseeing activities in addition to airfare, though the center could cover hotel and food expenses.

Carol Carson, the state ethics office executive director, wrote in an email that the tweaks were "significant" and brought the plans into alignment with the Code of Ethics.

Ryan said the trip to Turkey was valuable because it exposed participants to Turkish culture and Muslim practices, and that international trips in general benefit legislators by expanding their minds.

"We don't exist in a vacuum and we just should be aware of what's going on around us," he said, continuing later, "We're no longer just competing with other states. We're competing with the world in general."

He said that through the trip to Turkey he learned about Turkish individuals who had encountered hurdles in making investments in the United States. He said he spoke with someone in the office of U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, about the difficulties.

"I'm not sure we actually got to a satisfactory resolution to that at all," he said.

A May press release from Ryan announced that he and Maynard would host the 4th Annual Turkic Day Celebration sponsored by the center that month at the State Capitol. The release stated that the celebration "provides community members and elected officials with opportunities to network and consult on ways to help diverse communities contribute to the quality of life in Connecticut."

Hewett said legislators can learn new ways of approaching state business from traveling abroad, much as they can from studying practices in other U.S. states. He said legislators frequently propose new legislation based on laws that are in place elsewhere.

Hewett went to Taiwan in 2010 at the invitation of the nation's government and led a trade mission to the country in 2013. Upon his return, he advocated that Connecticut open an office in Taiwan to look for more opportunities for trade with the country.

Ryan returned to Turkey on a week-long trip in 2012 that included a stay in Azerbaijan, according to Ryan's necessary expense filings.

The Turkey portion of the trip was funded by a Turkish nonprofit affiliated with the Turkish Cultural Center, and the Azerbaijan portion by the State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan Republic, according to the filings.

Ryan said Maynard went on that trip as well. Maynard made a second trip to Turkey in 2013 with the center, according to Maynard's necessary expense filings.

Filings provide transparency

Public officials are not required to seek advice from the state ethics office when considering a trip for which a necessary expense filing will be required and may rely on previous advice "if the fact pattern is substantially similar," according to Carson.

She said the ethics office does not review necessary expense filings and does not check to make sure public officials file the required forms. The office launches investigations when someone raises questions about an official's actions.

"We do not use them (the forms) as a way to enforce the law," she said, explaining that the purpose of the forms is to provide transparency so that members of the public can see where public officials went and who paid.

The state ethics office provided The Day with necessary expense filings from 2011 onward for all General Assembly members representing southeastern Connecticut, as well as one filing for Hewett from 2010.

The filings provided included necessary expense forms from Ryan for the 2012 trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan, from Maynard for the 2013 trip and from Hewett for the 2010 trip. The state ethics office did not find filings for Ryan for the 2011 trip to Turkey or Hewett for his 2013 trip to Taiwan.

Hewett said he didn't recall filing a form for his 2013 trip, but said he wasn't trying to hide the trip. In fact, he was proud of it - he spoke about the trip with The Day upon his return, and said he keeps the article about it among his campaign materials.

The Public Officials and State Employees Guide to the Code of Ethics available on the ethics office website states that travel, lodging, meals and expenses related to a conference to which an official travels count as necessary expenses under the law.

"Entertainment costs (tickets to sporting events, golf outings, night clubs, etc.) are not necessary expenses," the guide states.

"Necessary expenses may be received by public officials or state employees only if the official or employee, in his/her official capacity, is actively participating in an event (giving a speech or presentation, running a workshop, etc.)," the guide also states.

Officials face penalties if they intentionally violate the Code of Ethics, according to Carson. One example of an intentional violation would be purposefully not filing a necessary expense form, perhaps because the official knows the trip does not qualify under the necessary expense portion of the code, she said. Violating the code as a result of gross negligence as opposed to intentional rule-breaking would not result in penalties, she said.

Twitter: @ConnecticuTess


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