Eminent complain: Concerns raised over possible conflicts for Sen. McDonald: Stamford CT Advocate, 3/23/07

By Brian Lockhart

Nancy Esposito's sheet metal business is located in a Norwalk neighborhood targeted for redevelopment. She had hoped the General Assembly would reform the state's eminent domain laws last year.

Then she learned state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is an attorney for Pullman & Comley LLC.

Not only does the law firm handle development work and eminent domain cases, but McDonald is defending Stamford from property owners seeking more compensation for the land they lost in 2005 to the Urban Transitway road project.

More recently, Pullman & Comley was hired as the financing counsel to developer Stanley Seligson. Seligson is the city of Norwalk's partner in revitalizing the West Avenue neighborhood - where Esposito's business is located.

With the Judiciary Committee revisiting eminent domain reform in hearings scheduled for today, Esposito does not believe McDonald will pursue significant changes because it could affect his employer and job.

"We can't look to him for any support on this issue," she said.

But McDonald said the criticism is off-base, arguing that he has no conflict of interest.

State law prohibits public officials from taking action on matters that have a direct monetary impact on themselves or their employers.

Although McDonald has sought opinions from state ethics staff before, he said he has not obtained an opinion about his work on eminent domain legislation and on eminent domain cases for Pullman & Comley.

"We represent citizens on all sides of the (eminent domain) issue, so it wouldn't have any bearing on our firm's practice in any material way," he said.

He notes that although Stamford is one client, a colleague recently defended Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church in Wilton against the state, which seized some of the church's land to widen Route 7.

"The work I do on eminent domain is 3 (percent) to 5 percent of what I do. The rest of it is complex commercial litigation," McDonald said. "And I don't do any litigation relating to economic development eminent domain. The only work I have done in the last five years is . . . dealing with public use" such as the Urban Transitway.

Rather than being a conflict of interest, McDonald said his legal background benefits the Judiciary Committee's work.

"I have an understanding of the process. This is a complicated area of the law," he said. "(Is it) better to have somebody with no understanding of the process weigh in on the solutions?"

Many legislators are grappling with concerns about conflicts between their political and professional lives.

In the face of criticism, House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, announced last week he would no longer seek contributions from lobbyists for his private employer, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, in recent years has come under fire for obtaining state dollars for his hometown aquarium. The aquarium's lobbyists are a subsidiary of Brown Rudnick, a law firm in which Cafero is a partner.

In coming weeks, the Government Administration and Elections Committee will conduct hearings on a constitutional amendment to make the legislature a full-time body so members do not have to hold a regular job.

That committee's chairman, state Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport, said he does not know enough about McDonald's work for Pullman & Comley to comment on whether it poses an ethical issue.

But Caruso believes McDonald approaches eminent domain reform from the perspective of a legislator elected to represent a big city.

"You clamp down too hard on eminent domain, it deprives cities of their ability to have development, which in turn affects the tax revenue for the town," Caruso said.

McDonald has said he believes there is a place for eminent domain in the revitalization of cities such as Stamford. Before running for state office in 2002, McDonald ran Stamford's municipal law department and was part of the unsuccessful effort to condemn Curley's Diner for a redevelopment project.

But state Rep. Richard Ferrari, R-East Granby, who has co-sponsored his own eminent domain bills, said McDonald should consider recusing himself from the debate.

"You know how sensitive we are to ethics. Everybody should be walking on eggs," Ferrari said. "I would think it would make a lot of sense for him to stand aside, simply to avoid the criticism."

McDonald said the eminent domain legislation he helped craft last year with members of the Planning and Development Committee made significant changes to the state laws, including: prohibiting redevelopment plans and property seizures solely to increase local tax revenues; requiring the municipal legislative body to approve individual property seizures by a two-thirds vote; setting a five-year expiration date for that approval; and boosting benefits paid to property owners and tenants forced to relocate.

The bill, seen by McDonald as a compromise between the extremes of outlawing eminent domain and doing nothing, never made it to a vote in the final days of the 2006 session. But many of the proposals are featured in legislation proposed this session by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

"I couldn't have done more," he said.

But some remain skeptical of McDonald's ability to be objective.

"The bottom line, I think, boils down to 'Is there an appearance of impropriety?' " said attorney Scott Sawyer.

Sawyer represented New London homeowners who sought to prevent that city from taking their properties for a waterfront project that included condominiums, a hotel and office space. The so-called Kelo case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, whose 2005 ruling in favor of New London caused the furor over eminent domain that led legislative leaders in Connecticut and states throughout the country to re-examining how governments can take private property.

Sawyer said he was unaware of McDonald's background and work for Pullman & Comley when he testified in favor of eminent domain reform before the Judiciary Committee last session. But he recalled being frustrated with what he viewed were McDonald's arguments favoring eminent domain for economic development purposes.

"He may or may not be helping a client. I don't know. I truly don't," Sawyer said. "But it's the type of thing you'd hope . . . a senator . . . would step away from that."

Charles Willinger, a Bridgeport attorney who defended Chevrolet dealer Maritime Motors against Norwalk's effort to seize its property for redevelopment, argued that McDonald's work for Stamford could predispose him to favor cities in the eminent domain argument.

"The last thing Norwalk or Stamford wants is to do away with is eminent domain," Willinger said.

State Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, said he would prefer that McDonald take a stronger stand against seizing private residences for economic development. But he does not believe McDonald has a conflict of interest.

"It may be what he does professionally informs his position on issues," McKinney said. "That's the whole essence of a citizen legislature. We wouldn't want a farmer to be prohibited from voting on farming or agricultural issues."

Former state Rep. John Wayne Fox who defended Curley's Diner in its fight against Stamford, agreed. The Stamford Democrat said McDonald can address the topic of eminent domain as a legislator as long it does not benefit a specific Pullman & Comley case.

But he suggested McDonald consider seeking an opinion from the Office of State Ethics.

"It provides you with a safety net in the event anyone comes looking to criticize you," Fox said.

Stamford CT Advocate: http://www.stamfordadvocate.com