Ethics questions hang over RCDA

No one now affiliated with the Renaissance City Development Association has a longer and more tortured history with the agency, which brought the shame of much of the nation on New London, than attorney Karl-Erik Sternlof.

Sternlof was right in the thick of it when the RCDA, then the New London Development Corporation, destroyed a city neighborhood and took people's homes by eminent domain for development that didn't happen then and still hasn't decades later.

The city and the state-funded NLDC won their case for taking the homes before the U.S. Supreme Court but lost soundly in public opinion forums around the country, setting off a wave of legislation in the nation's state houses, including Hartford, making sure that what happened to those evicted New London residents, who lost their homes for no reason, doesn't happen again.

And yet, remarkably, Sternlof, who wore one of the tallest black hats in the long story, at one time even mocking an evicted property owner in intra-agency emails, has not only been helping to set policy at the agency but has been on the payroll, collecting legal fees.

That arrangement, which seems to raise legitimate questions of ethics, is now in some flux, and Mayor Michael Passero needs to step in and drain this swamp, which is partly of his making.

Passero's predecessor tried to clean house, changing the agency's name and pushing both the president and Sternlof, the vice president, off the board. Sternlof reappeared, though, as the paid lawyer for the agency, like some kind of magic act.

He recently changed law firms, moving from Waller Smith & Palmer of New London to Halloran Sage, a statewide firm. That led the RCDA to issue a request for proposals to find a new firm to replace WSP, and Sternlof said he plans to submit a proposal from Halloran Sage.

It was Peter Davis, the RCDA executive director, who, according to a news story in The Day, was recruited for his job after he was suggested for it by Sternlof, who oversaw the request for proposals for lawyers.

After I first wrote about what appears to me to be an obvious conflict of interest, I was goaded by a reader to learn more about what specific ethical violations are at play here.

I took the challenge, and it appears they are considerable. I learned, for instance, that if the RCDA were considered a state agency — indeed, much of its budget, including money for legal fees, comes from the state — Sternlof's hiring by the RCDA within a year after he left the board could have been a violation of state ethics laws.

It certainly violates the spirit of the restriction that tries to keep revolving doors from spinning.

More worrisome, I was told by someone familiar with bar association ethics that the rule of professional conduct prohibits lawyers from representing a client in lawsuits in which they could become witnesses. Sternlof, while at WSP, has been defending the RCDA against a lawsuit brought by developers over a soured deal that he helped negotiate as the agency's vice president. He most certainly could be called as a witness in that trial.

The rules of conduct also suggest a lawyer shouldn't represent a client if that representation might involve the lawyer's own interest in the matter. In other words, the legal defense of that failed RCDA deal should look at the agency's best overall interests without concern about the interests of the decision makers who put the agency in the legal dispute in the first place.

Sternlof told me, when I first wrote about this, that he sees no conflict in his representing the agency.

David Urbanik, the chief operating officer of Halloran Sage, when I asked him about Sternlof's representation of the RCDA, said he didn't know enough to comment. But he said he would look into it.

I hope he does.

And I hope Mayor Passero, whose campaign manager is on the RCDA payroll, rethinks the commitment of city money and resources to an agency that is not answerable to city voters and which has a decadeslong history of failure.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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