Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven (Christine Stuart photo)

(Updated 9 p.m.) Two of the legislature’s top Democratic leaders Thursday criticized Republican M. Jodi Rell for using $220,000 in state funds for what they believe may have been a focus group, focused more on politics than budget policy.

“We are extremely concerned and disturbed by the report that the governor spent $220,000 of taxpayer money for a pollster basically to determine how best to handle the state’s fiscal crisis and give it political spin,” Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven said Thursday.

He said he was especially disturbed with the make up of the nine member focus group put together by Ken Dautrich of the University of Connecticut.

The nature of the focus group was really structured in a way that would examine the governor’s own base rather than examine statewide public opinion, Looney said pointing out that none of the nine members came from Connecticut’s three largest cities.

“We’re disappointed that the governor’s been using state dollars for political purposes,” Speaker of the House Chris Donovan said bluntly Thursday afternoon. “The governor’s employing a consultant to give her political advice.”

“It was not looking for political effectiveness, but political posturing,” Donovan said. 

Rell defended the use of the focus group to help guide the creation of her state budget released in February.

“I am very pleased with the work that Ken Dautrich did to define issues for reducing state spending, working with agency commissioners to identify areas where savings could be achieved, and providing insight and new ideas as we struggled – and continue to struggle – with the most difficult budget situation in modern memory,” Rell said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “We worked very hard to ensure that the work he did and the questions he asked were policy-based, dealing with budget, spending and taxing issues.”

“Ken’s work was invaluable and he helped us to determine ways to save taxpayers money,” Rell added.

Christine Stuart photo
Speaker of the House Chris Donovan (Christine Stuart photo)

But Democratic lawmakers questioned why Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s name would come up as part of the focus group.

At one point according to the article the New London Day, Dautrich asked the focus group which one do you think is a better leader: Rell or Blumenthal.

After being given a list of adjectives, such as “principled” and “honest” the focus group was then asked “if Governor Rell or Attorney General Blumenthal fit these characteristics.”

“Many of the participants agreed that Blumenthal fit the characteristics well,” Dautrich reported to Rell.

More Democratic reaction

The story reported first by the New London Day gave Rell’s Democratic opponents in 2010 something to talk about.

“This behavior on the part of the Governor’s office is outrageous,” Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Hartford said. LeBeau even opined that Rell may not have known that state dollars were used for the poll.

“Significant questions are again raised about the role of her Chief of Staff, Lisa Moody in another possible illegal and certainly unethical action on the part of the Governor’s office,” LeBeau, who is exploring a run for governor in 2010, said.

“It’s beyond outrageous that Governor M. Jodi Rell used more than $200,000 in taxpayer dollars to fund what was, in essence, a focus group to gauge support for her possible re-election bid next year,” state Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo, said in a statement. “At the very least this looks as though it violates state ethics guidelines, and possibly even the law.”

“It certainly appears that Governor Rell used taxpayer money for her own political benefit, which, at the very least, raises serious ethical concerns,” Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, who is exploring a run for governor in 2010 said. “If true, it means she paid to find out what people wanted to hear, and then she told them exactly that – knowing it wasn’t true, but that it might work for her politically.”

Donovan and Looney were uncertain exactly what step they may take next, but at the very least they want Rell to provide them of a copy of the full report.

DiNardo said at an afternoon press conference that she would not file an ethics complaint herself, but encouraged others to do so. She agreed with Donovan and Looney that any further action, whether legal or ethical, isn’t clear at this point.

Governor’s staff responds

Matthew Fritz, special assistant to the governor, wrote this letter to the New London Day in response to Thursday’s story about the focus group.

Fritz points out in the letter that the focus group was a fairly small portion of the overall cost of the study to reinvent government.

“It should be pointed out that the focus group cost $2,000 – a very small portion of a very comprehensive $220,000 project to examine and reinvent state government,” Fritz wrote.

Fritz defended Dautrich’s work.

“Professor Dautrich’s work has already saved the state millions of dollars through efforts to reduce the state’s fleet, address telecommunications issues, and enhance bottle deposit provisions,” Fritz wrote. “More of these savings can be found in his report – except no one will take the time to read it since there is not enough intrigue and innuendo throughout to merit a few days worth of blogging.”

CTNewsjunkie has requested a copy of the report and was told by Rell’s office that the Sept. 8 memo uploaded to the New London Day’s web site is the extent of the report.

Updated: Apparently there was some confusion about what was being requested and the governor’s office is getting together copies of the report to be distributed Friday afternoon.