A longtime watchdog of Delaware corruption says things have improved dramatically over the past decade.
Talk to John Flaherty about corruption in the First State, and it’s not long before the names Tom Gordon and Sherry Freebery come up in the conversation. Gordon served as New Castle County Executive until 2004. Freebery, his second in command, was unsuccessful in her attempt to succeed him.
Throughout their tenure at the top of the county, Gordon and Freebery were dogged by accusations of corruption and wrongdoing. “County government under Gordon and Freebery was pretty iffy,” says Flaherty, president of the Delaware Coalition for Open Government. The pair were indicted in 2004, accused of racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud. Most of the charges were dropped, and by the time it was all over, Gordon pled guilty to providing wrong tax information and sentenced to probation and a $300 fine. Freebery pled guilty to making a false statement on a loan application and also got a year of probation and a $350 fine.
Even though they weren’t convicted of any of the most serious charges, a cloud of suspicion lingered over county government for years. The scandal and suspicion likely played a role in the advancement of now-U.S. Senator from Delaware Chris Coons. Coons defeated Freebery in the race to succeed Tom Gordon in the County Executive’s office.
At the same time, the administration of Governor Ruth Ann Minner from 2000 – 2008 also created a cloud of suspicion. Minner was accused at various times of accepting improper gifts from lobbyists, including a plane trip to Canada paid for by liquor distributor Chris Tigani. Tigani was recently sentenced to two years in prison for his illegal campaign contributions, including contributions to Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign.
Minner also got into hot water for making land deals through DelDOT, again involving Tigani. In 2006, Tigani was able to get a 66-year lease on 10 acres of land in Milford for just $1,500 a month. The monthly rent was thousands below the estimate of a state appraiser, who set the rent at more than $84,000 per month. “When the Governor’s willing to make shortcuts and use DelDOT for her own political purposes, that’s a shortcut for trouble right there, and Minner was willing to do that,” Flaherty says.
But for Flaherty, when Jack Markell was elected to replace Minner in the Governor’s office, the change in the perception of state corruption was dramatic. “It’s like night and day between Markell and Minner,” Flaherty says. He credits Markell for his leadership in making state government more open. Flaherty says Markell has made it easier to get Freedom of Information Act requests fulfilled. “He’s done a really good job of implementing open government.”
But that doesn’t mean Delaware has reached the pinnacle for open government and accountability. One area he thinks needs to be addressed: lobbying reform. He points to State Representative John Kowalko’s legislation that would force lawmakers to wait two years before returning to Legislative Hall to lobby their former coworkers. “Kowalko’s bill has met with all kinds of obstacles. It’s been shredded here and there. They don’t seem serious about handling this issue.”
Flaherty says the state needs to make more information available online. “A lot of states have everything on there. They’ll have all the employees of the state, their salaries, their overtime, the contracts. Everything the government does is now on the internet so everybody can scrutinize that information. I think we need to do that here in the state.”