Ethics scandals won’t disappear with Rowland resignation

Real reform means tightening gift and ethics laws, enacting public financing

Gov. John Rowland (R) of Connecticut made the right decision to resign Monday, shortly before a House impeachment committee was supposed to recommend whether or not he be removed from office for violating state ethics laws by accepting expensive gifts from people doing business with the state, and then lying about it.

But Rowland’s departure doesn’t solve the problem of access buying and influence peddling in Connecticut politics, or anywhere else. Real reform will come only when ethics and gift-giving laws are tightened, and elected officials and candidates don’t depend on fund-raisers with agendas to pay for their campaigns. Those systems foster the kind of cozy relationships and special favors to friends and supporters that cheat taxpayers and make the public cynical about elected officials.

Earlier this year, Connecticut lawmakers considered a publicly financed campaign system to reduce the influence of money on public officials. Sadly, even with Rowland’s ethics scandal prominent in the headlines, the legislation was killed in committee.

By contrast, Maine, Vermont and Arizona have passed laws under which candidates who demonstrate broad support by raising a certain amount of money in small contributions are eligible for public campaign funds. By accepting election grants, the candidates agree to abide by spending limits and forgo raising private money.

“In a public finance system, campaigns cost a fraction of what they would compared to using private dollars, and candidates aren’t beholden to anyone except their constituents,” said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause. “That’s the kind of system that will help restore citizens’ faith in our democracy and governments.”

“The Rowland administration showed what happens when public officials are forced to rely on private donors to finance their campaigns” said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign. “By passing full public financing the legislature has an opportunity to insure that no future governor of Connecticut will ever need to rely on well heeled favor seekers to win the state’s highest office.”

It should come as no surprise that four of the seven governors forced from office in US history were impeached on charges of campaign finance scandals and misappropriating public funds. Enacting public financing in the states and for congressional elections, and reforming the ailing presidential public finance system, would go a long ways toward ensuring integrity in government.