Fact check: William Tong’s qualifications for attorney general
The rumor fish-tailed its way around the Democratic state convention floor, smacking delegates, candidates and media alike.
Its target was attorney general candidate William Tong, a state rep. from Stamford. As Tong circulated the convention trying to win over delegates, the whispers claimed he was unqualified for the job.
Connecticut’s attorney general must be an “attorney at law of at least ten years’ active practice at the bar of the state,” according an 120-year-old state statute.
Candidates must have practiced law for a decade — as their primary livelihood — and have experience litigating in court and representing clients, state law specifies.
Tong may not meet this standard, a volunteer for the campaign of Chris Mattei, a former federal prosecutor also running for attorney general, told me during the convention on May 12.
“It’s something to look into,” the volunteer said.
The rumor was no harmless gossip. In 2010, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that Susan Bysiewicz, who is now running for lieutenant governor, was unqualified to hold the job of attorney general, although she was a former lawyer who served as secretary of the state. Because she hadn’t “actively practiced” law for ten years, Bysiewicz had to drop out of the race.
Before and during the convention, Tong said, reporters, town party chairs and other delegates kept approaching him about the rumor with concern.
It did not stop the wave of support for Tong, however. He claimed the Democratic endorsement, while Mattei, a former federal prosecutor, and state Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield both qualified for the August primary.
But the “smear,” as Tong called it Wednesday, still bothered him.
“It is an absurd issue to raise and in many ways, pretty offensive,” he said.
Tong, 45, was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 2004, according to the state Judicial Branch. For 15 years, he has been a commercial litigator at Finn, Dixon and Herling, LLP in Stamford and previously worked for the international law firm Simpson, Thacher and Bartlett.
In the state legislature, he has been the House chairman for four years of the Judiciary Committee, which oversees the function of the Judicial Branch and major areas of state law.
“We’ve debated the Bysiewicz decision and the qualification issue in the Judiciary Committee!” Tong said with exasperation. “I’ve lived with this as a legislator and it’s absurd to think I would have decided to run for attorney general without thinking about it first and making sure that I was covered.”
Mattei’s campaign on Wednesday denied it was the source of the claim that Tong is unqualified. The Mattei volunteer who shared the gossip with me said he heard it from Mattei staffers who heard it from delegates.
“From the beginning, our campaign has been focused on the most important question facing voters: who is most capable of representing Connecticut families and their interests in the courtroom,” Alex Goldstein, a spokesman for the Mattei campaign said Wednesday. “It is not surprising that at a convention of 2,000 delegates and hundreds of volunteers, there were questions being asked of all four candidates for Attorney General about the background and experience they bring.”
Mattei, too, was subject to the same questions about his qualifications when he declared his candidacy back in December.
Best known for sending ex-Gov. John Rowland back to prison for campaign fraud, Mattei, 40, was admitted to the Connecticut Bar in 2005, state Judicial Branch records show. A former U.S assistant attorney, he joined joined the Bridgeport office of Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder as a trial lawyer in late 2015.
“I’ve been actively litigating cases in courtrooms across Connecticut for more than 10 years,” Mattei said in December.
Here’s how the records of the five candidates now vying for attorney general stack up:
Doyle, 55, has been practicing law in Connecticut the longest. The Democrat was admitted to the state bar in 1990. Since 2000, he has litigated for Heneghan, Kennedy Doyle LLC , where he is now a partner. For two years before that, he ran his own solo practice in Wethersfield. Doyle is the Senate chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Republican endorsed candidate Sue Hatfield has been a member of the state bar since 1998, according to the Judicial Branch. Since 2005, she has served as a state prosecutor with the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice. The Pomfret resident is also a registered nurse.
Republican challenger John Shaban was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1994. He is a partner at Whitman, Breed, Abbott and Morgan in Greenwich, where he practices corporate litigation, environmental and energy law. As a three-term state representative for Easton, Weston and Redding, Shaban also served on the Judiciary Committee.
The Secretary of the State’s Office has no investigatory powers to look into attorney general candidates’ resumes and disqualify them, Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for the office, said.
Bysiewicz was disqualified after criticism led her to seek a ruling on her own qualifications, first from then-attorney general Richard Blumenthal and then from a trial court, which ruled that her experience as Secretary of the State experience constituted active law practice. But the Connecticut Republican Party appealed and, in May 2010, the state Supreme Court reversed the lower ruling.
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