Trumbull Ethics Commission candidate at center of debate - again

Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox

Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox

Contributed

TRUMBULL — For the second time in two years, the appointment of a nominee everyone agreed was qualified sent the town council into a contentious debate and party-line vote.

This time, Ethics Commission nominee Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox secured the necessary two-thirds majority vote, but not before members complained of selective and arbitrary standards.

Gadkar-Wilcox is a professor of Constitutional and human rights law at Quinnipiac University and a two-time recipient of the Robert J. Myers Fellowship from the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. She was previously nominated for a seat on the Ethics Commission in 2019, and her appointment vote failed on an 11-10 vote, with all 10 Republicans voting against her nomination.

On Monday, with the GOP caucus having been whittled to five in the 2019 election, Gadkar-Wilcox won approval on a 16-5 vote. All 14 Democrats and both unaffiliated members voted in favor of the appointment.

“I love this town,” Gadkar-Wilcox said before the council vote. “Ethics is an important part of what I’ve done in my professional career.”

Minority Leader Carl Massaro, R-3, restated his opposition to Gadkar-Wilcox’s nomination on the basis that she had run for state representative as a Democrat in 2018 and 2020, both times losing to incumbent Republican David Rutigliano. Massaro also pointed out that First Selectman Vicki Tesoro had contributed $100 to Gadkar-Wilcox’s campaign, which he cited as a potential conflict of interest.

Members of boards and commissions routinely recuse themselves from discussions when there is a potential conflict of interest, and Gadkar-Wilcox indicated she would do the same. She also said she has no intentions to run for political office in the future, although she did not rule it out.

Majority Leader Jason Marsh, D-3, said Massaro’s standard was arbitrary and does not appear to have applied to any other candidate.

“John Walkley, who is being replaced, himself ran for office and served on the commission honorably and without issue,” Marsh said. “Former First Selectman (Morag) Vance has served honorably and with distinction.”

Massaro rejected the comparison.

“Morag Vance last ran for office 32 years ago. John Walkley ran once for treasurer, and that was a half-dozen years ago,” he said. “Someone who is politically active, sandwiching two campaigns around the nomination for this position is the point that I’m raising as the Ethics Commission traditionally does not have politically active people sitting on it. Their careers either passed or never really existed.”

Joy Colon, D-4, pointed out that there had been no objections when Amy Todisco ran for probate judge twice in 2010 and 2012 while serving on the Ethics Commission. And former Republican State Rep. John Varrone had been unanimously approved to serve on the Ethics Commission in 2010.

“Mr. Massaro, who voted against Sujata on the principle that someone who ran for office should not serve on the commission, voted for Varrone that night,” Colon said.

Former council member Eric Gross had also served on the Ethics Commission, as did former school board member James Stapleton, Colon said.

“It appears to me this standard has never been applied to a nominee for the Ethics Commission before it was applied to Ms. Gadkar-Wilcox,” Colon said.

Massaro replied that Varrone and Stapleton had served on the commission decades after leaving elected office.

“That’s the distinct difference,” he said.

Joanne Orenstein, D-3, wondered if the town council itself could live up to Massaro’s standard.

“I find it troubling that Councilman Massaro has an issue with Ms. Gadkar-Wilcox on the basis of her running for office, when we all sit here as elected officials,” she said.

She added that she found it “particularly loathsome” to call into question the integrity of someone who had spent their career studying and teaching ethics and Constitutional law.

“What she is interested in doing is making our town a better town, and that’s what we have to consider, not whether she wants to run for office,” she said. “We’ve all run for office.”

Marsh agreed, saying he doubted Massaro’s objection was truly about political aspirations.

“It’s just calling someone’s integrity into question without cause, and I think that’s shameful, and despicable,” he said. “Ms. Gadkar-Wilcox doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, and as a town we should be better than that.”

Massaro bristled at the accusation that he was questioning Gadkar-Wilcox’s integrity.

“Play back some tape and read some minutes because I’ve never questioned the integrity of this candidate,” he said. “I’ve questioned whether someone who is currently politically active should sit on the Ethics Commission when that commission has to sit in judgment of other town officials should complaints be brought forward. And I’ve pointed out a potential conflict of interest.”

deng@trumbulltimes.com