Jon Lender at The Hartford Courant wrote a piece today about G. Kenneth Bernhard, former Republican state Representative from Westport/current head of the state Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board, being guilty of violating the rules he’s supposed to uphold.
As we reported a few months ago when Bernhard assumed the chairmanship, he was off to a rocky start.
By Brian Lockhart
HARTFORD — The 4-year-old Office of State Ethics and its Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board’s mission is, according to the agency Web site, “to ensure honesty, integrity and accountability in state government.”
But an attorney with a precedent-setting case pending before the group is questioning whether that mission has been compromised by confusion about the validity of the appointment of the board’s newest chairman, G. Kenneth Bernhard, a former state representative from Westport.
The issues are technical, but attorney John Geida argued that if the board is going to uphold state laws, it must ensure its own decisions are fair and legal in fact and appearance.
Bernhard, an attorney who served in the General Assembly from 1996 until his defeat in 2004, was first appointed to the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board in November 2007 by House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.
And on Thursday, Bernhard became the board’s newest chairman.
But in early September, Geida called for Bernhard’s disqualification from the board, claiming he was appointed illegally by Cafero.
“It’s not an attack on Mr. Bernhard,” Geida said Friday. “It’s seeking to uphold the rule of law.”
Geida is representing the defendant in the first public hearing held by the board since it was created in the wake of the scandals that led to the resignation of former Republican Gov. John Rowland.
Geida’s client, Priscilla Dickman, a former University of Connecticut Health Center medical technologist, stands accused of violating state ethics laws by using state property and resources “in furtherance of her private jewelry and travel consulting businesses.”
The board held hearings through September, and a decision about Dickman is pending.
The problem with Bernhard’s appointment, Geida wrote in a Sept. 1 letter to the Office of State Ethics, is it broke state rules by occurring within three years of Bernhard holding public office.
Citizen’s Advisory Board members, in an opinion issued last week by themselves and Office of State Ethics attorneys, agreed.
According to the opinion, Cafero first appointed Bernhard in a letter dated Nov. 15, 2007, for a term that began immediately and is to end Sept. 30, 2011.
That same day, Cafero, at the request of the Office of State Ethics, sent a corrected letter to Bernhard that specified his term instead began Jan. 1, 2008.
The problem, Geida said, is that Bernhard served in the General Assembly until Jan. 5, 2005, when his successor took office.
“Whether one reads the date of appointment as Nov. 15, 2007, or the start date of Jan. 1, 2008, the appointment was within three years of Mr. Bernhard serving as state representative,” Geida wrote.
The Office of State Ethics and the advisory board this week agreed, declaring Bernhard’s original appointment invalid.
But Geida remains concerned about Cafero’s efforts to clean up the confusion last month, when, on Sept. 9, he sent a third letter to Bernhard to make his appointment official.
“It has come to my attention that a question has been raised regarding my appointment of G. Kenneth Bernhard to the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board,” Cafero wrote. “To the extent that any defect may exist with respect to his appointment, I am, today, appointing G. Kenneth Bernhard to the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board to commence serving … immediately.”
The Ethics Advisory Board and the Office of State Ethics’ attorneys concluded this Sept. 9 appointment was proper and also determined that any of Bernhard’s actions taken during the past two years were valid despite his initial appointment being invalid.
Geida said Cafero jumped the gun and should have awaited a final decision on Bernhard’s status before sending the Sept. 9 letter.
“The appearance of it is rather suspect,” Geida said. “Rep. Cafero did not address the merits of the issue at all, seemed to sweep it under the rug and say, ‘Well, everything is OK now.’ … The second appointment I question legally because the first appointment at that point wasn’t found to be valid or invalid. It was a very unique situation. (Cafero) didn’t let the administrative process play itself out, so there are questions I believe we can raise to courts of higher authority.”
Geida said he is awaiting the board’s decision in the Dickman case before he and his client decide whether to question Bernhard’s status further.
Bernhard said Friday, “It appears that, despite all good intentions of everybody involved and the dedication of everybody involved, it was a technical flaw in my service.”
He said he was pleased with Cafero’s continued support and looks forward to serving as chairman and continuing the good work of his predecessor.
“We provide an extraordinarily valuable service to the state employees in maintaining the high standards Connecticut wants to aspire to in compliance with ethical issues,” Bernhard said.
Cafero said all along he was simply following the Office of State Ethics’ advice and trying to get things right.
“He’s a nice, wonderful man (and) well-respected on both sides of the aisle,” Cafero said of Bernhard, joking afterward, “I think I’ve (appointed) him nine times already.”