COLUMN

Legislature Resisting Federal Investigators

Clues to how serious the federal investigation of corruption at the General Assembly is come from the reaction of state officials to routine requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Facts surrounding a list — that an official's office declined to acknowledge existed in December — were recognized last week with multiple caveats. A request for documents late last year was missing from a recent disclosure of documents but turned up on Wednesday when specifically requested.

This is often the pattern. Deny, obfuscate, see differences where there are none and treat the broad as narrow. All this occurs while they hope it will all go away. If the pattern continues in the legislature, the thick black mark of the frantic redaction of information on official documents released under duress will become that branch's symbol.

With persistence, you can shine light on a mystery the powerful would prefer remain festering in darkness. The course of the federal criminal investigation at the legislature is worth pursuing. How the legislature has reacted to it provides a look at the powerful in a squeeze only federal law enforcement officials can initiate and sustain.

In October, federal authorities sought information from bureaucrats at the legislature as part of an investigation into former Speaker of the House Christopher Donovan, campaign contributions and legislation. The Office of Legislative Management kept the inquiry a secret from some legislative leaders for almost two months. It continues to refuse to provide copies of the federal subpoenas. These are public employees who very much want to keep the public from learning anything about the people's business.

In October, OLM officials asked the attorney general for help in responding to the unwelcome attentions of law enforcement. OLM said in a December document that Attorney General George Jepsen's office provided a list of lawyers it recommended to handle the "confidential and politically sensitive" matter that is "extremely urgent." Jepsen's office could not represent the legislature because, a spokesman wrote in an email on Wednesday, the office "typically does not handle criminal matters." According to Jepsen's office, its discussions with legislative bureaucrats about finding a lawyer were a "purely informal give and take."

In early December, a spokesperson for Jepsen's office could not "confirm or deny any communications; however any communications with an agency involving legal advice would be privileged." A list of lawyers is not legal advice. Nevertheless, Jepsen's office would not acknowledge its recommendations, informal or otherwise, for two months.

I obtained the list on Wednesday from the legislature. It features neither date nor letterhead, that's especially odd in a culture that likes its stationery grand and larded with adornments and titles. As has become common for the legislature's bureaucrats, it featured an unexplained redaction. As of Thursday, OLM Executive Director James P. Tracy had declined to cite an authority for the redaction. The three lawyers on the list are Thomas Murphy of Cowdery Eckert & Murphy, James Glasser of Wiggin and Dana, and Stephen Manning of O'Brien, Tanski & Young. Murphy represents former Donovan top aide Laura Jordan, a key figure in the investigation, so he was not going to be able to represent the legislature.

Murphy, with whom Jepsen worked before becoming attorney general, and Manning each made only one political contribution in 2010, according to the State Elections Enforcement Commission website, and it was to Jepsen. He said through a spokesperson on Wednesday that he played no role in the recommendations to the legislature and "to the best of his knowledge, he does not personally or professionally know Mr. Manning."

Manning got the job and it's been a nice deal for him so far. Based on the legal bills, the investigation of corruption at the legislature is gathering momentum, requiring Manning to make the eighth-tenths of a mile journey to and from the his office and the Legislative Office Building at up to $195 a trip numerous times. This does not feel liked shared sacrifice. His brief has been expanded and he's blasted through the $20,000 cap on contracts that are not subject to competitive bidding.

There's an easy solution to the dodging, redacting and refusal to release public documents. Tell the federal authorities what they want to know. Stop protecting insiders, start serving the public. Do right.

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

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