Hartford Advocate: A New Day? [For Elections Enforcement]

Hartford Advocate article on State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) and criticism of its history of enforcement:  A New Day? Critics hope a new head of the state’s Elections Enforcement Commission will be tougher on corrupt politicians <read>

Jeffrey B. Garfield just retired as head of Connecticut’s Elections Enforcement Commission, ending more than 30 years as the official watchdog of our campaign laws.

In theory, Garfield was an ever-vigilant guardian ready to rip the entrails out of any scum-sucking politician who violated our sacred election system.

In reality, Garfield and the EEC more often played the role of flaccid, placid lapdog than ass-chewing election Rottweiler, particularly when it came to incumbent state elected officials.

Garfield’s departure has triggered gushing praise for his long service as well as questions about how effective his enforcement efforts were in the past and whether recent reforms will be able to prevent abuses in the future…

Garfield’s replacement, Albert P. Lenge, insists recent reforms have already made the EEC a tougher, more effective agency. “It’s a brand new day,” Lenge said this week. Let’s hope so…

The EEC seemed more eager to go after challengers and municipal officials than to take on the people who controlled the commission’s budget. The commission almost never launched an investigation on its own, preferring to wait for formal complaints. Garfield said the commission didn’t have the resources to go out looking for violators.

Proof of how weak the enforcement was came in an eruption of federally prosecuted corruption cases that included convictions of ex-Gov. John G. Rowland, Silvester, ex-Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim and ex-state Sen. Ernest Newton III. Those scandals finally led in 2005 to passage of public campaign financing and reforms intended to insulate the commission’s enforcement arm from political pressure.

“Had they [Garfield and the EEC] been stronger, had the whistle been blown sooner, you probably wouldn’t have seen the level of corruption that came about,” said state Rep. Chris Caruso, a Bridgeport Democrat who formerly served as co-chairman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee…

Lenge, who served as the commission’s deputy director and general counsel since 1995, doesn’t agree with many criticisms of the EEC’s past performance and also argues recent reforms have made the agency even stronger…

“Those were strong enforcement actions,” said Lenge. Caruso thinks the penalties should have been much heavier.

“There’s been a tradition within the EEC to level fines of a few thousand dollars on sitting state officials,” said Caruso. “In public opinion, really those are slaps on the wrist.”

Lenge says the emphasis on bigger fines ignores the effect an EEC reprimand can have on an incumbent’s reelection. “Just a finding [of wrongdoing] or a reprimand sometimes sends a strong message,” Lenge said.

He also disputes there was ever an EEC tactic of going after easy targets like local or challenge candidates.

Lenge said creation of an enforcement unit that is insulated from the director and the rest of the EEC staff has made the agency more independent and more likely to take on powerful incumbents. He also argues the commission has lots more resources now, with a staff that’s grown from seven in 1995 to 52 today. The EEC is now auditing every single 2008 legislative campaign and will initiate investigations if need be.

In the past we have criticized the speed of the SEEC and the Legislature because election regulations and procedures are not enforceable by the SEEC, leaving little room for holding election officials to account for lapses in the conduct of elections and audits.

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