COLUMN

No Wrongdoing Here, Just Some Distractions

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You pay attention to the wrong things. That's what three politicians claimed when caught in betrayals of the public interest in the past two weeks. With no credible explanation for their bad acts, each branded their controversy a "distraction" as they wrote checks to try to make their foolish avarice fade from public view.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra found themselves in an unforgiving spotlight over money and entitlement. They did not like it.

Malloy, who shows an embarrassing urge to be around other people's stardust, accepted a complimentary trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, an event that raises a puny amount of money for charity when measured against the attention it generates. Some Hollywood celebrities make an appearance each year and this causes the political world to squeal with delight and vie for invitations from media table hosts.

The celebrity and gossip magazine People, owned by Time Warner, invited Malloy to join its delegation in Washington. The UConn Foundation, which has paid some of Malloy's travel and hotel expenses, would have faced a challenge in contorting its education mission into paying for this lark. So People picked up Malloy's tab.

Taking gifts from corporations makes many in Connecticut uneasy. Former Gov. John G. Rowland went to jail for taking a charter jet flight in exchange for an airport tax credit. That's why the law imposes strict limits on gifts to public officials. Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, raised questions about People paying Malloy's way. The governor's office had not requested an opinion on the gift to Malloy from the state's ethics agency. Why ask when you don't want to risk an adverse answer? Instead, Malloy will reimburse his corporate benefactor.

Elizabeth Esty, serving her first term in the House of Representatives, is married to the state's controversial commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Daniel Esty. He made part of his fortune doing work for companies in the energy business that he now oversees. He was recently a featured speaker on a conference call for energy industry analysts sponsored by international finance conglomerate UBS, a company that has had trouble obeying the law.

Daniel Esty's comments to the industry analysts were seen as helpful to Northeast Utilities, one of the companies that paid him $205,000 before he became commissioner. Elizabeth Esty has solicited and accepted tens of thousands in contributions from energy executives and their lobbyists. She returned contributions she received from NU but is holding on to more than $30,000 from others related to the industry her husband regulates.

Elizabeth Esty offers no explanation why she returns a few soiled contributions but keeps loads of others. Instead, she calls it "a distraction."

Segarra enjoyed a New Year's Eve bacchanalia on Hartford taxpayers at Max Downtown, a popular swanky restaurant. His party of six tagged the public for $800 on a city credit card. The evening's fare included rack of lamb and caviar. On any day, count on Segarra to proclaim the dire state of Hartford's finances. He's been pushing tax-exempt nonprofits such as hospitals to pay millions to the city to balance its budget. His credibility as a trustworthy steward for sensible city finances is gone.

Segarra's taste for the grandiose is evident in the makeup of his restaurant party. Two of the six celebrants were members of his security detail. Segarra garnered a mere 5,736 votes in his 2011 bid for a full term. He is in little danger of being recognized in most of Hartford. West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka, in a town with half of Hartford's population, snagged 8,329 votes the same day. He has neither municipal credit card nor security detail.

The initial reaction from the Segarra bunker was to dismiss the revelations broken by Kevin Brookman on his We the People blog. Team Segarra was reduced to labeling the telling mess as a "distraction" while reimbursing city coffers. No security detail can protect Segarra from his fatal, self-inflicted political wound. It was First Night. Segarra was on duty, they squealed. The details, however, proved deadly. The best spinners in the business can't explain publicly funded caviar.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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Andy Green, the opinion editor, has taken the "know a little bit about everything" approach in his time at The Sun. He was the city/state editor before coming to the editorial board, and prior to that he covered the State House and Baltimore County government.

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