In response to its efforts to fight a bill that would have redefined the financial and pastoral structure of the Catholic Church in Connecticut, the Diocese of Bridgeport is now being investigated by the Office of State Ethics (OSE) for acting as a lobbying group without registering as one. Today, the diocese filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the investigation.
According to the Diocese of Bridgeport, a letter was received on April 23, 2009 from Thomas K. Jones, Ethics Enforcement Officer for the OSE, who informed the diocese that it was "the subject of an Office of State Ethics evaluation." The Church is suspected to have violated several Connecticut General Statutes (1-94, 1-95 and 1-96) which deal with “failing to register as a lobbyist in Connecticut,” “failing to submit all other appropriate lobbyist filings” and “failing to follow all applicable registration procedures."
The letter from the OSE argues that the diocese acted as a lobbying organization by participating in a rally at the State Capitol opposing Bill 1098 and using its website to encourage members to contact their elected representatives to oppose proposed legislation.
Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport reacted to the investigation earlier today, saying, "Following the surprise introduction of Bill 1098, a proposal that singled out Catholic parishes and would have forced them to reorganize contrary to Church law and the First Amendment, our Diocese responded in the most natural, spontaneous, and frankly, American, of ways: we alerted our membership – in person and through our website; we encouraged them to exercise their free speech by contacting their elected representatives; and, we organized a rally at the State Capitol.
“How can this possibly be called lobbying?" he asked.
Over the weekend, all parishes in the Bridgeport Diocese will hear a letter read to them from Bishop Lori addressing the investigation. In his letter, the bishop explains what he believes the consequences of the state requiring to register as a lobbying organization would be.
“Once again,” writes Lori, “we should be outraged. 'Lobbying'? Exhortations from the pulpit, information posted to the world wide web, a rally in the middle of the day on the State’s most public piece of property? This cannot possibly be what our Legislature had in mind when it enacted lobbying laws to bring more transparency and oversight to a legislative process that has been corrupted by special interests and backroom deals.
“Let’s be clear: we violated no law.” Bishop Lori states in his letter.
In response to the investigation, the diocese announced on Friday afternoon that it had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Thomas Jones, OSE Ethics Enforcement Officer, and against Carol Carson, Executive Director of the OSE. The Bridgeport Diocese is seeking a court order to prevent further action against it by the Office of State Ethics.
"I believe that an order from the Court barring Mr. Jones and his colleagues at the OSE from applying the lobbying laws to the Diocese in this manner is necessary to enable the Diocese to continue to carry out its mission without fear of incurring civil penalties, exposure to possible criminal prosecution, burdensome administrative requirements, and intrusive oversight by the State," Bishop Lori said.