Pardon secrecy bill fails amid Sen. Kissel and Republican opposition [Journal Inquirer]

June 17, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Journal Inquirer

Among the bills that failed to pass the legislature before it adjourned this month was a proposal by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration to give legal authorization to broad secrecy of the state’s pardon process.

Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield, was among the most vocal legislative opponents of the measure, which would have made confidential “any application, report, or other record” submitted to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles “with respect to the granting of a pardon.”

The bill would also, in effect, have authorized closed meetings of the three-member panels that consider pardon applications. That’s because of a provision of the state Freedom of Information Act permitting agencies to hold closed-door sessions to discuss confidential documents.

Kissel said this week that publicity in the Journal Inquirer and other media outlets “raised the visibility of the issue.” There were also a number of opinion columns in newspapers around the state decrying the pardon bill and other bills to limit transparency in government, and Kissel said the publicity “had an impact.”

Kissel said Republican senators made clear in the final days of the legislative session that they would “talk bills.”

Because the legislature meets on a pre-set schedule, time becomes precious in the final days of a legislative session, and the prospect of extended debate is a disincentive for considering a bill. That gave the Republican minority some leverage over what the Democrat majority did before the legislature adjourned June 5.

Kissel said Sen. Eric D. Coleman, the Democrat who serves as co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had an unexpected illness late in the legislative session, which slowed bills that had come through the committee, as the pardon bill did. Coleman’s district includes parts of Windsor, Hartford, and Bloomfield.
Kissel said he didn’t recall the pardon bill being among Coleman’s top five priorities. Likewise, Kissel said, the Malloy administration “pulled away from the proposal.”

Michael P. Lawlor, the governor’s top aide on criminal justice policy and planning, didn’t respond to requests by the Journal Inquirer to comment on the failure of the pardon secrecy proposal. Lawlor, a former legislator who is generally accessible, has consistently avoided commenting on the bill.
Likewise, attempts on Thursday to reach Rep. Gerald M. Fox III, D-Stamford, the House chairman of the Judiciary Committee, were unsuccessful.

The pardon panels historically have made extensive use of closed-door meetings, although officials of the Board of Pardons and Paroles say they have been moving toward greater “transparency” in recent months.
A Journal Inquirer reporter has been looking into the pardon panels’ practices and has filed three cases against the board before the Freedom of Information Commission.

During the hearing on the first of those cases, held in late April, board officials took the position that the board’s entire file on each case is confidential. Among their arguments was that a 2006 law makes confidential board staff reports on applications for “provisional” pardons.

A provisional pardon is designed to clear barriers to employment and occupational licensing for people whose criminal convictions don’t affect their ability to do a given job. Unlike an absolute pardon, it doesn’t “erase” a person’s criminal record.

Even when it receives an application for an absolute pardon, the board maintains, it always considers a provisional pardon as well. Thus, it argues, the confidentiality law for staff reports on provisional pardon applications applies to all pardon applications, even though there is no similar provision in the law regarding applications for absolute pardons.

The Freedom of Information Commission has yet to decide any of the cases filed by the JI.

As to the possibility that the pardon secrecy bill may resurface in a future legislative session, Kissel said, “We’re ready to fight, and I still feel strongly about the issue.”