After Colangelo scandal, CT lawmakers authorize greater range of punishments for top prosecutors

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FILE - State prosecutor Richard Colangelo speaks during a hearing at Connecticut Superior Court in Stamford, Conn., March 3, 2020. An independent investigation is questioning the "integrity" of Colangelo hiring a state budget official's daughter in 2020 while lobbying for pay raises for staff.

FILE - State prosecutor Richard Colangelo speaks during a hearing at Connecticut Superior Court in Stamford, Conn., March 3, 2020. An independent investigation is questioning the "integrity" of Colangelo hiring a state budget official's daughter in 2020 while lobbying for pay raises for staff.

Tyler Sizemore / Associated Press

HARTFORD — Connecticut lawmakers this week voted to expand the range of punishments that can be levied against top prosecutors, a decision that comes several weeks after the previous chief state’s attorney, Richard Colangelo, stepped down amid a nepotism probe.

The legislation dealing with the disciplinary process for state’s attorneys was included in a final batch of bills approved unanimously in the Senate just a few minutes before the close of the legislative session Wednesday night.

The inclusion of the bill attracted little attention as the senators wound down their work. It passed the House last month without any opposition and now heads to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk.

Under current law, the chief state’s attorney can be removed from office by the Criminal Justice Commission, the same body that is in charge of appointing prosecutors in Connecticut. Statute, however, does not give the commission the authority to hand down any punishment to the chief state’s attorney other than full removal from office.

That provision of the law went mostly unnoticed in the decades since the office was created, until this year when Colangelo was caught up in a brewing scandal surrounding his decision to hire the daughter of another state official, Office of Policy and Management Deputy Secretary Konstantinos Diamantis, while Diamantis was reviewing raises for Colangelo and other top prosecutors.

After the release of a report questioning Colangelo’s honesty in speaking with investigators reviewing the allegations, the Criminal Justice Commission sought to initiate its first set of proceedings to potentially remove a chief state’s attorney.

However, Colangelo chose to retire while continuing to deny wrongdoing.

In their change to the statute, lawmakers voted to allow the commission to hand down lesser forms of punishment, such as suspension or reprimand.

The legislation also establishes a new prohibition on prosecutors serving simultaneously in elected positions in state or municipal government. While he was chief state’s attorney, Colangelo also served as chairman of the Easton Board of Police Commissioners and as a member of the Republican Town Committee.

“The legislation seems to make a lot of sense and might be useful,” said Commission Chairman Andrew McDonald, noting the commission can already take a wide range of disciplinary actions against rank-and-file prosecutors. “No one could really understand what brought about the discrepancy in the statute historically.”

Jess Zaccagino, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, submitted testimony in favor of the bill, saying it would increase accountability for prosecutors who have their own broad authority to influence punishment for people convicted of crimes.

“The recent scandal at the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney reveals not just lapses in judgment from the most powerful prosecutor in the state, but shows symptoms of a state’s attorney system that operates outside the bounds of democratic accountability,” Zaccagino wrote. “Whenever a powerful government official misbehaves, it is crucial for lawmakers to look at the system that allowed that behavior to happen, and to take steps to prevent future harm.”

The Division of Criminal Justice, which is now led by interim Chief State’s Attorney John Russotto, also weighed in to support the bill before the legislature, noting commissions overseeing judges and public defenders have the authority to hand down a range of punishments to the personnel they oversee.

The Criminal Justice Commission’s paltry annual budget of $409 also led to questions about whether it has the resources to conduct an extensive investigation into allegations of wrongdoing by prosecutors. The bill passed by the lawmakers did not address the commission’s funding, however, and is not expected to lead to any additional costs.

McDonald said Thursday no adjustments were made to the commission’s resources during this year’s budget process.

This week, the commission announced plans to interview three veteran prosecutors to succeed Russotto as chief state’s attorney.