Posted: May 28, 2009
A SAFE HOUSE FOR POLITICIANS TAKES IN MATT DENN
By Celia Cohen
Even Matt Denn cannot live on ambition alone.
Since 2004 he has gone from being a lawyer to insurance commissioner to lieutenant governor. Delaware did not have to authorize more betting for anyone to lay odds that this 43-year-old Democrat harbors designs on the governorship someday, as lieutenant governors before him did.
Each time Denn has moved up, his salary has moved down.
He collected $105,350 a year as insurance commissioner and takes in $76,250 now. It is not even close to a first-year associate's annual take of $145,000 at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, the firm where he was a partner before running for office. For this he went to Yale Law?
"If I keep going on this trajectory . . . " Denn said, then let silence speak to the woeful prospects.
Denn is doing what so many Delawareans have been forced to do as their salaries slide. He has taken a second job. Not to mention that Michele, his wife, works part-time as a physical therapist in their joint endeavor to keep body and soul together for themselves, their four-year-old twin boys and a dog. It is a small dog but has a healthy appetite.
Finding work as lieutenant governor is not as easy as people might think. There are conflicts of interest to avoid. This is not Illinois, where a conflict is deciding whether to pay to play or walk away because the other guy probably is being wiretapped. This is Delaware. There are ethics police.
Other lieutenant governors have had jobs on the side. John Carney did some consulting. Ruth Ann Minner had her family towing business. Mike Castle, like Denn, was a lawyer, although he had to dissolve his partnership at Schnee & Castle with Carl Schnee and go solo. In the practice of law, any conflict for one partner is a conflict for every partner.
Denn took care. After the election, he went to the state's Public Integrity Commission, the keeper of governmental ethics. It ruled in December he could go into private practice as long as he kept away from any contact with state courts or state agencies.
Denn found his fit by late March. It should not have been a surprise. He went with the Bifferato firm, also known as the Safe House for Needy Politicians.
Bifferato does not discriminate by party. It was where Beau Biden was before he was elected attorney general as a Democrat. It took in Bill Lee, the retired judge who ran for governor as a Republican. It also has Schnee, who once ran for attorney general on the Democratic ticket.
Denn got lucky with the timing. The firm was in the process of dividing. It used to include Connor Bifferato and Vincent Bifferato Jr., the sons of Vincent Bifferato Sr., the revered, retired Superior Court judge, but their practices were going in different directions. Some lawyers stayed with Connor at the Bifferato firm, and some stayed with Vincent Jr. at the Bifferato Gentilotti firm.
The fraternal relationship remains intact, Connor Bifferato said, even if the legal work did not.
His part of the firm got to keep his father, who is busy with mediations. It also kept Lee and Schnee. Most critically for Denn, it shed the caseload involving the state -- like the Industrial Accident Board matters that are part of Bifferato Gentilotti practice.
"Matt couldn't have come before the split," Connor Bifferato said.
Denn will stick to the federal side of the law. "I am doing almost exclusively Bankruptcy Court litigation. All of my practice will be in the federal courts," he said.
The separation between Denn's private practice and public life is like church and state. It is so restricted that the firm's Web site does not mention that he is the lieutenant governor.
Denn expects to average about 10 hours a week with the firm -- more when the legislature is out of session, less when it is in and he presides over the state Senate. Bankruptcy Court documents show Bifferato lawyers billing from $250 to $310 an hour, and Denn said his rate will run toward the high end.
The arrangement suits Denn. Although he has made his way in politics by eating his opponents' lunch, it lacks nourishment. Now he can provide some.