Conn. legislature grapples with ‘impeachable offense’



The state legislative committee investigating misconduct by Gov. John G. Rowland is not only trying to determine whether the state’s chief executive committed an impeachable offense — it is also trying to define what an impeachable offense is.

Without clear guidelines set out under state law, the 10 state representatives on the Select Committee of Inquiry are entrusted with laying out standards under which the General Assembly might consider Rowland’s impeachment. While most other states and the federal government have explicit standards defining an impeachable offense, the Connecticut constitution provides little guidance concerning the removal of state officials.

Rowland, who is also the subject of a federal investigation, has admitted to accepting gifts and favors from state employees and contractors.

State Rep. William Hamzy, a member of the Select Committee of Inquiry, said the rules concerning impeachment proceedings — which have only begun once, in the case of Hartford Probate Judge James Kinsella in 1983 — leave significant discretion on the part of the committee.

“Not only are they relatively vague, but they’re undefined,” said Hamzy, a Republican from Terryville. “The only precedent we have to go by is the impeachment of a probate court judge. The impeachment of a probate court judge is a far cry from the impeachment of a sitting governor.”

With a lack of precedents in Connecticut history, the Rowland investigation has stirred up memories among legislators of another set of proceedings that captured public attention: former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 over charges that he obstructed justice and lied to a federal grand jury.

The analogy has been strengthened by the recent hirings of lawyers who were closely involved with Clinton’s defense team by both Rowland and the Select Committee. Steven Reich, who served as senior associate counsel for the former president, is serving as the chief lawyer for the committee, while Clinton’s former Solicitor General Seth Waxman LAW ’77 has been hired to assist Rowland’s legal team.

State Rep. Michael Lawlor, a Democrat from East Haven serving on the Select Committee of Inquiry, said memories of the partisan rancor that surrounded Clinton’s impeachment have encouraged legislators to forge a consensus before moving forward. Several Republicans in the General Assembly have called for Rowland’s resignation, and the measure creating the committee investigating Rowland was passed unanimously in the State House.

“Almost everybody — Republicans included — have made the point that we don’t want to have a Clinton impeachment here, where all the Democrats vote one way and all the Republicans vote another way,” said Lawlor, who is also a visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School.

But New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said most local residents he knew did not have the former president in mind when they considered whether Rowland should resign or be impeached.

“I don’t think it is so much the Clinton impeachment. It’s what people think is right and wrong, and what they think is appropriate,” DeStefano said.

In Clinton’s case, the standard for impeachment was “high crimes and misdemeanors” — a threshold Rowland said he would welcome in comments to the Associated Press earlier this week. On Monday, a lawyer for Rowland, Ross Garber, asked the committee to set time aside to clarify Connecticut’s impeachment standards.

Reich, the committee’s counsel, responded by inviting Garber to submit the Governor’s Office’s opinion concerning the relevant impeachment standards, but he declined to delay the committee’s investigation. While the General Assembly has set a April 14 deadline for the panel to submit its recommendations, committee members have said they may need more time.

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