When former Gov. John G. Rowland was sentenced to a year in prison Friday, it underscored a sobering fact for Connecticut politicians: Federal law enforcement authorities are carting them off to penitentiaries at an unparalleled rate.
``I have said before that if things keep going the way they have been in Connecticut, you're going to run out of mayors,'' said Chris Swecker, deputy director of the FBI's criminal division.
And not just mayors.
Over a decade and a half, federal agents have convicted, among others, a state treasurer, a candidate for secretary of the state, three big city mayors, a state judge, bureaucrats, inspectors and dozens of their political colleagues, not to mention the bankers, financiers, fund-raisers and construction executives and criminals who pay them off. Add to that a guilty plea by the ex-governor, the conviction of his deputy chief of staff and the indictments of three other gubernatorial associates and a record emerges that gives lie to the picture of Connecticut as a seat of Yankee propriety.
``They have had incredible success,'' Austin J. McGuigan, a former chief state prosecutor, said of the federal law enforcement record on government corruption in Connecticut. ``I don't know where else in the country this record is equaled. It is a stellar record.''
Stellar, perhaps. But for reasons that are clear to no one, it has not been as sobering as it could be to Connecticut's political class. Even though barrels of ink have been drained on scandal coverage, federal investigators continue to have little difficulty uncovering sleaze. Federal agents in Connecticut routinely take aim at new groups of politicians almost before the prison gates have closed on the previous targets.
Federal prosecutors, along with FBI and IRS agents, are running multiple corruption investigations -- a significant personnel allocation in a tiny jurisdiction such as Connecticut. Investigations are known to be underway in Bridgeport and Waterbury -- at least the second time around for each city since the late 1980s.
The serial scandals beg questions about which came first: Are the state's federal law enforcers particularly adept at rooting out political miscreants? Or is the state's political culture thoroughly corrupt?
There is some truth in both propositions, according to legal and political experts.
Officials at FBI headquarters in Washington attribute the string of convictions, not surprisingly, to a particularly talented local cadre of investigators and prosecutors working closely with the bureau's Connecticut division, run by Special Agent Michael Wolf.
``Mike Wolf has probably the most effective public corruption program in the country,'' said Swecker, who directs all FBI crime fighting programs. ``The New Haven office has been the leading office in the country.''
There also is agreement that the political culture in Connecticut -- a state where a former Rowland aide buried ill-gotten gold coins in his backyard -- is riddled with greed and a corrupt sense of entitlement.
``Statistically, I would say it's true,'' said retired Connecticut FBI agent Michael Clark, who supervised or worked on, among other things, investigations of Rowland, former state Treasurer Paul Silvester, two Waterbury mayors, a Superior Court judge and a city manager in Meriden. ``By the number of cases being generated, something is going on. There is no question about that. We have just had an endless supply of targets. It doesn't stop.''
While no one disputes the numbers, not everyone thinks the long and expensive prosecutions behind them are justified. Attorney Hugh Keefe, who has defended accused mayors in Danbury and Waterbury and is representing an indicted former Rowland aide, believes federal authorities have established a threshold for investigation that is too low. He believes federal authorities are prosecuting trivial political crimes in Connecticut that are ignored elsewhere.
``I believe, and I don't think I'm far off the mark, that what has happened in Connecticut happens everywhere and has happened since the first vote was cast in this country,'' Keefe said. ``Maybe the public's intolerance has increased. I don't know. One of the side effects of all this, besides really detracting from the image of the state of Connecticut, is to discourage good people from getting involved in politics.
``I think there is such a thing as setting the bar too low, where every single thing is looked at suspiciously as an indictable offense. When I look at the Rowland case very closely, I wonder, what did this guy do? The image got out of control and the public was convinced he was corrupt. But when you look closely at what he did, it was nickels and dimes. And I've known a lot of politicians, who I can talk about now because they're dead, and what was going on in the Rowland administration is really not out of line with what I know was going on in the '50s, '60s, '70s.''
The current run of federal corruption convictions dates to the appointment in 1985 of U.S. Attorney Stanley A. Twardy Jr. Ambitious and politically seasoned, Twardy assumed office looking for a way to distinguish his tenure as the state's top federal prosecutor. What he saw was a lack of interest in prosecuting corruption.
``I remember discussing that with Stan at the time,'' said a colleague who has since been appointed to a judgeship, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. ``There was no other game in town.''
There had been another game in the late 1970s and early '80s. McGuigan, then the state's chief prosecutor, made aggressive use of the investigative one-man grand jury, initiating more than 20 such probes during his tenure. Many of those were directed at allegations that influential politicians were collecting political payoffs from businessmen hoping to win state contracts. It was a prescient investigative premise, as subsequent federal investigations would prove.
But critics accused McGuigan of overreaching and empire-building. He became embroiled in a bitter feud with state police and came under fire for his handling of bribery allegations against a state prosecutor. In 1985, the legislature transferred the authority to appoint the chief state's attorney from the chief justice of the Supreme Court to a commission appointed by the governor, and McGuigan was ousted.
``When McGuigan was chief state's attorney there was a lot going on,'' the Twardy colleague said. ``But after McGuigan, everything was just completely closed down. There was a real feeling among federal people that the state had no appetite for it. Not only did the state have no appetite for it, but there was a fear that somehow, orders had come down from on high not to do it at all.''
Twardy made plans for an anti-corruption campaign and obtained the backing of the state's FBI and Internal Revenue Service offices. The first target was former Danbury Mayor James Dyer, who was indicted on evidence provided, in part, by a banker who was persuaded to cooperate with investigators. But the case collapsed. Most observers believe the prosecution was flawed by tactical errors in the way investigators and prosecutors filed charges and immunized witnesses. Keefe defended Dyer.
Twardy sent a federal law enforcement team to a corruption seminar and, within months, was back in business. Based on independent informant tips to FBI and IRS agents, a collaborative investigation began into the administration of Waterbury Mayor Joseph Santopietro, then the youngest mayor in state history. In April 1992, then Assistant U.S. Attorney Holly B. Fitzsimmons, now a federal magistrate judge, obtained convictions of Santopietro, six political associates and about a dozen bankers, lawyers and city bureaucrats. Among other things, they were accused of orchestrating a kickback scheme so audacious that it contributed to a bank's failure.
In Santopietro, federal authorities showed -- when measured against offices elsewhere in the country -- an early mastery of the complicated racketeering and criminal conspiracy laws that form the legal framework of financial corruption cases. And they began to benefit from a truism of political prosecutions: When voters are convinced that authorities are committed to fighting corruption, they are increasingly willing to report wrongdoing.
``There certainly is an incremental learning curve and an incremental public acceptance and public confidence curve that you have to surmount,'' said Leonard Boyle, a former federal prosecutor recently appointed to be the state's commissioner of public safety. ``Once that happens, then these things do tend to come more frequently than they otherwise would. Because if you are in a jurisdiction when no one ever seems to get prosecuted for any kind of corruption, I think that people who know that there is improper conduct going on think that it just is not worth sticking their necks out. If they think there are going to be consequences, then obviously they are going to be a little more willing to come forward.''
Kevin J. O'Connor, Connecticut's current U.S. attorney, said: ``What has happened in Connecticut is that we have developed the experience and the expertise. And we have used that to uncover what was a much bigger problem than we might have initially thought 10 years ago.''
Public corruption now is the FBI's top criminal priority nationally and locally, and consumes a proportionately large share of bureau resources. The bureau's success in Connecticut has made the state operation a national model, Swecker said.
Wolf, who manages the Connecticut division, called the investigation leading to the conviction and imprisonment in 2003 of Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim emblematic of the bureau's commitment to investigations that usually are long, complicated and, when successful, result in a relatively small number of hard-fought convictions.
The Ganim case stretched over five years. Agents spent 20 months tapping nine telephone lines, a labor-intensive activity that siphoned personnel from other assignments. Wolf would not say how many agents worked on the Ganim case. But he said the work was justified, even in a small division with 110 agents.
``The core of our system of government rests solidly on a foundation of trust and confidence that elected officials will represent the public and its interests,'' Wolf said. ``When an official comes to the crossroad of integrity, when they choose to serve themselves over those who elected them, the system crumbles.''
A continuing federal commitment to fighting political crime is necessary in Connecticut, according to O'Connor, Wolf and others, because state authorities have been hamstrung by changes in state criminal law dating to McGuigan's removal from office in the mid-1980s. Among other things, the changes have made it difficult for state prosecutors to convene an investigatory grand jury, a legal tool state prosecutors need to confer immunity and compel testimony from reluctant witnesses in complicated investigations.
State prosecutors have pleaded for the establishment of a workable grand jury law in Connecticut for years, but have been rebuffed repeatedly by the state legislature.
``In this state, authorities have not been afforded the tools,'' Wolf said. ``That presents difficulties in addressing public corruption and other types of cases. We do not have those tools in our box.''
Some observers also believe the state's ability to police its own politics may be weakened by the system under which state prosecutors and senior police officials are appointed.
``The problem in Connecticut is, in the past there has been a cozy relationship between the government and the people who ought to be regulating or investigating them,'' McGuigan said.
Connecticut's current top prosecutor, Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, disagreed, saying his appointment by the state Criminal Justice Commission insulates him from politics. He said his relationship with the governor's office and other influential political figures is ``professional.''
``I haven't hesitated to attempt to step up and initiate investigations,'' Morano said. ``But for a request by federal authorities in the Rowland matter, we would have done that case.''
The lack of a workable grand jury system in Connecticut is far more harmful to the state's efforts to fight corruption than the method of prosecutorial appointments, Morano said. State law allows for the empaneling of a form of investigatory grand jury, but Morano said that the law is difficult to use and that the state legislature has repeatedly ignored his requests to change it.
``When I go to the legislature, as soon as I mention public corruption their eyes glaze over,'' Morano said. ``They don't want to hear about it. But I am still determined. Despite the lack of tools and the lack of money, we are going to continue doing things. You can't expect us to build a sky scraper with a butter knife, but we are going to keep trying.''
One of the most successful state prosecutors, Waterbury State's Attorney John Connelly, believes the current division of labor between federal and state authorities -- federal prosecution of complicated, financial crime and state prosecution of hundreds of thousands of other crimes running from traffic offenses to murder -- is serving voters.
``I think the two work together well,'' Connelly said.
A far more intriguing question, according to Wolf, is how many more photographs of politicians being led in chains to jail must be published before corruption ceases to regularly make the headlines in Connecticut.
``What is most troubling to me,'' Wolf said, ``is that even with all these initiatives, we are not effectively serving as a deterrent. It is not deterring people from such activities.''Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun