When is a lobbyist not a lobbyist?
The answer, according to the complicated state laws that determine who's allowed to influence government officials in decision-making (which is what lobbying is, pretty much), is: When a person lobbies a public official on an issue, but is not paid for it by whoever he's representing, he's not a lobbyist. He is doing the things that lobbyists do — influencing legislation, or public policy — but under the law he's not a lobbyist unless he's paid at least $2,000 for it.
How about this one: Say an attorney has a client who's been paying his law firm millions of dollars for legal work over a period of years, and then he decides to do lobbying work for that client for free. Even though the client is still paying his firm, the lawyer isn't considered a lobbyist as long as he states that the unpaid lobbying on behalf of the client is "irrelevant" to the continuing, paid legal work.
As hard as those examples are to follow — and as much as they might indicate holes in the state's lobbying laws — they are paraphrases of actual advice that prominent Hartford lawyer-lobbyist Thomas D. Ritter, former speaker of the state House of Representatives and current UConn Board of Trustees member, has obtained in recent years from the Office of State Ethics.
Ritter — a lawyer who heads the government-relations operation at the Hartford law and lobbying firm of Brown Rudnick — has solicited guidance repeatedly from the ethics office since 2006 concerning his firm's representation of the state's big quasi-public trash-to-energy agency, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority, or CRRA.
The Courant obtained the ethics agency's opinions last week after criticism began being voiced about the activities of Ritter and his firm on behalf of the CRRA.
The criticism has been based on the fact that the CRRA and other quasi-public agencies are prohibited by law from hiring outside lobbyists to help them persuade the legislature to pass laws favorable to their purposes, or to gain some favorable action from a state agency.
Critics have begun suggesting that what Ritter calls legal work is tantamount to lobbying, and have cited internal communications such as emails between Ritter and the CRRA as indications that the lobbyist ban is being circumvented.
A Massachusetts public relations firm last week issued a statement on behalf of Ritter, who has declined to comment on nearly all of the issues that have arisen: "At all times, Brown Rudnick and its lawyers have acted strictly in accordance with all prevailing legal, ethical and regulatory requirements."
Ritter has repeatedly stated in the past that he has never lobbied for CRRA — even though he lobbies for other clients and leads Brown Rudnick's local lobbying operation.
Last week, Government Watch obtained some emails from 2010 between Ritter and the CRRA's president, Thomas D. Kirk. They show that Ritter contacted the state's top budget official in a successful effort to get the State Bond Commission to approve $5 million toward the closing of the Hartford landfill — something that Kirk said in a Feb. 16, 2010, email to Ritter that he was willing to "beg" then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget director for.
Ritter was in continual communication with Kirk about progress in obtaining approval for the $5 million — including saying in a Feb. 25, 2010 email that he'd had a "good conversation" with Rell budget director Robert Genuario. Ritter, at the time, was working as a lawyer representing the CRRA, not as a lobbyist, he has said in letters and emails.
His efforts to get the Rell administration to release the $5 million were done as a lobbyist — but not for CRRA, he says. Ritter lobbied for the City of Hartford, free of charge, he has told the ethics office. Hartford's interest in the $5 million for the landfill was the same as the CRRA's, he has said, so it was "ancillary" to the lobbying effort that he kept in continual contact with his legal client, the CRRA's Kirk, about his efforts to influence state action.
Ritter solicited advice from the Office of State Ethics about the situation in July 2006, before he embarked on an earlier round of lobbying efforts on behalf of the city concerning arrangements for closing of the landfill — efforts that he said "might have an ancillary benefit for my legal client, the CRRA." The CRRA has paid more than $2.5 million in fees to Brown Rudnick for legal representation in the past six years, but the lawyers and CRRA insist that none of it has been for lobbying.
"If you receive absolutely no funds from CRRA specifically for lobbying, it is irrelevant that your lobbying work will indirectly benefit CRRA," Cynthia Isales, assistant general counsel at the ethics office, wrote to Ritter in August 2006.
Ritter's emails with Kirk in 2010 continued at least through May 12, when he told Kirk that he planned to check with Hartford's city attorney to find out "whether I could represent the City in lobbying the Governor's office to get it on the Bond agenda." The State Bond Commission approved the funds in July of that year.
Criticism of the Ritter-CRRA arrangement surfaced in the past week with news of a lawsuit filed against CRRA by consultant Matthew Hennessey of Hartford, a Democratic strategist who served as chief of staff for now-convicted former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez. Hennessey charges in the lawsuit that he failed to win a CRRA contract that he had sought because of favored treatment granted to Brown Rudnick.
He also charged in the lawsuit that Ritter's work for the CRRA has violated the state prohibition against quasi-public agencies hiring outside lobbyists. The lawsuit says that Brown Rudnick had not only lobbied "for CRRA's closure of the Hartford landfill'' starting in 2006, but also later helped "secure a veto from Governor Rell on a bill that would have prevented CRRA from placing a landfill in the town of Franklin.''
Brown Rudnick's public relations firm and the CRRA both denied the allegations in the lawsuit.
First to raise issues about Brown Rudnick's representation of the CRRA was Courant columnist Kevin Rennie, who wrote on March 3 that Ritter, in recent years, also has worked under a CRRA contract as its "municipal liaison." That work paid $84,000 a year, for a multiyear total of at least $250,000. Rennie said the liaison arrangement "dodges the ban" on quasi-public agencies hiring lobbyists.
Rennie also wrote that emails show Ritter has been in contact with another Brown Rudnick lawyer, House Minority Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, about prospective appointees to the CRRA board, even though Cafero has said through the years that he has no knowledge of Brown Rudnick's government-relations function.
Cafero last week told The Courant's Capitol bureau chief, Christopher Keating, that "I'm tired of saying it, but I have absolutely nothing to do with any matter of any client that has dealings with the state."
The legislature enacted the ban on quasi-public agencies hiring lobbyists after the 2002 scandal over the CRRA's disastrous financial deal with Enron, the energy giant whose sudden collapse shocked the nation. Lawmakers believed that the CRRA's management at the time had run amok, and talked of reining in its power and influence. CRRA has new management and a new board now.
Asked about the recent issues that have arisen about Brown Rudnick and CRRA, including the emails that have emerged, Carol Carson, the Office of State Ethics' director, said she cannot, by law, comment on whether her agency will look into the situation.
Ritter's most recent written inquiry with the ethics office came this past Dec. 19, when he said discussions with CRRA officials had made it "clear that the next few months are very important to their long-term survival" — because of the depressed prices in which they sell the electricity that they generate from burning trash. Ritter said the CRRA officials "would be interacting with numerous state officials" and "it occurred to me that on a short-term basis I could best serve CRRA as a pro-bono [free of charge] lobbyist."
Ritter said the "municipal liaison" contract has expired, although Brown Rudnick continues to serve CRRA under its lucrative long-term legal representation arrangement.
The ethics office's deputy general counsel, Brian O'Dowd, responded Jan. 4, telling Ritter that it would be OK, "provided that you do not receive or agree to receive ... any compensation and/or reimbursement from CRRA for your lobbying activities" — because without payment, "CRRA will not be retaining a 'Lobbyist,' as is prohibited."
But O'Dowd said there might be a violation of an ethics law "if your lobbying activity on CRRA's behalf would impact whether or not CRRA survives, and, by implication, whether or not Brown Rudnick would continue to be retained by CRRA."
Ritter said Friday that, based on that latter advice, "I have not" lobbied on the pro bono basis he outlined, "and I will not."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.