Editorial: New Haven Register Editorial: John Rowland, Dan Malloy and Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act

A strong Freedom of Information Act and watchdog journalism continue to be Connecticut’s best weapons against public corruption, and former Gov. John Rowland’s latest shenanigans offer a lesson on why honest politicians should be calling for the latter to be strengthened, not eroded.
After his stay in prison on felony corruption charges, Rowland is accused of shaking down two millionaire congressional candidates in a scheme to exchange his connections and influence for payments hidden from the Federal Election Commission. One candidate, Mark Greenberg, turned him down. The other, Lisa Wilson-Foley, agreed to pay him $35,000 through her husband Brian’s nursing home business. The Foleys have pleaded guilty to an alleged conspiracy with Rowland to break campaign finance laws.
So if Rowland hasn’t changed, one wonders what he was really up to while giving all of those speeches at corporate retreats and Rotary clubs about how he’d found redemption through Jesus Christ while in prison and seen the error of his ways?
We know that he used his platform as an afternoon talk show host on the WTIC Radio station to trash Wilson-Foley’s congressional opponents, without disclosing to them or WTIC’s listeners that he was taking money from her husband.
But we don’t know much about Rowland’s other post-prison job, as an economic development specialist with the Waterbury Chamber of Commerce. And this is where one can find a direct relationship between the strength and spirit of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and potential corruption.
Rowland was “in charge of economic development” in Waterbury from January 2008 to January 2012, but he wasn’t employed by city government. Instead, an arrangement was cooked up in which Rowland would work for the Waterbury Chamber, and the city government would earmark $100,000 a year in taxpayer funding to the chamber to support economic development work.
We wonder whose idea that scheme was, and how much it had to do with giving Rowland a playground shielded from the public’s right to know. Our guess: Rowland, and all of it.
After its reporting uncovered the Wilson-Foley scheme in 2012, the New Haven Register filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city of Waterbury seeking documents relating to Rowland’s time as economic development coordinator. The newspaper received only a handful of emails between Rowland and city staff on minor topics, and clippings of a “ribbon-cutting roundup”-type column that Rowland wrote for the weekly Waterbury Observer.
Either Rowland had a practically “no show” job as Waterbury’s lead economic development official, and one has to wonder why, or 90 percent of the communications around his work were kept secret under the shroud of the Waterbury Chamber or off-city email communications. The newspaper filed an appeal with the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, arguing that Chamber documents should be released because the Rowland arrangement was clearly a taxpayer-funded endeavor and the Chamber was being used to skirt the law. But the commission ruled that the law does not apply to private organizations.
What does this have to do with politicians other than John Rowland? Well, consider Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration’s use of “private” organizations such as the University of Connecticut Foundation, and its insistence that many aspects of the “First Five” economic development program must be kept secret to protect the business plans of private companies receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer assistance.
And in its quest for information about Rowland in Waterbury, the New Haven Register was told that there was no communication between Rowland and former Mayor Michael Jarjura because Jarjura never used a city email account.
If that sounds familiar, read up on the Hartford Courant’s reporting about the Malloy administration’s use of private email accounts to conduct public business.
Because Rowland is so bad at not getting caught, Connecticut taxpayers might get a look after all at those secret Waterbury Chamber documents. Federal investigators raided the Chamber’s office as part of its investigation into Rowland and seized a bunch of records.
To have faith in the rest of the people in charge of our local and state governments, we need a strong Freedom of Information Act that is enforced both in letter and spirit.

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