Is a watchdog agency independent if it answers to an administration and shares legal staff with other agencies? It’s a question some agency heads are asking after having a look at the governor’s two-year budget and its accompanying legislation.

For the government watchdog groups included under the umbrella agency Office of Government Accountability, this is not a new fight. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy created the agency two years ago through legislation that consolidated nine previously separate agencies under one roof over the objectionsof some of the agency executives.

But the bill that eventually passed the legislature was a compromise, which allowed the agencies to maintain separate staff and propose their own budgets.

Agency heads also understood the bill to have given them the ability to fire the Malloy-appointed administrator who oversees the umbrella office. However, David Guay, the executive administrator of the Office of Government Accountability, has disputed that point.

But the budget Malloy proposed Wednesday, and legislation that went along with it, proposes to have the various entities within the OGA reduce and share their legal staff under a newly created Office of Hearings. It also transfers fiscal, information technology, and communications staff members to the Office of Government Accountability’s administrative office.

The governor’s budget recommends adding an additional agency to OGA — the Council on Environmental Quality — and eliminating two vacant jobs to save $190,000 annually.

Meanwhile, the governor proposed another bill making changes to the way the watchdog agencies’ budgets are drafted.

Mitchell Pearlman, a former head of both the state Freedom of Information Commission and state Office of State Ethics — which are two of the agencies now under OGA — said the legislature gave the state government watchdog groups the ability to draft their own budgets and submit them directly to the legislature for approval.

That provision was put in place during the administration of former-Gov. John Rowland, who went to federal prison on corruption charges.

Malloy’s bill would give him the ability to recommend his own budgets for the various entities within the Office of Government Accountability.

“It doesn’t look very good,” Pearlman said of Malloy’s legislation.

Pearlman, a lawyer and professor at the University of Connecticut, said the consolidation of the agencies legal staffs potentially puts lawyers for the groups at a conflict of interest if they’re asked to hear cases regarding other offices within OGA.

Pearlman also was critical of putting all the agencies under a political appointee of the governor while curtailing their ability to remove that administrator if that person was functioning poorly. He said even if the proposals aren’t approved by the legislature, it looks bad to the public.

“You have to wonder why a governor who publicly espouses transparency would try to take away the independence of the agencies whose job it is to ensure the transparency of the administration,” he said. 

Carol Carson, director of the Office of State Ethics, said she was still working out the details of the governor’s proposal but was concerned by what she understood so far.

“I’m very concerned that this is dismantling ethics oversight in the government. It’s taking away independence. It’s taking away resources. It’s taking away our ability to enforce. And those are the three you have to have to be an effective watchdog,” she said.

Carson said it appears as if her agency would lose all its attorneys, which means it wouldn’t be able to provide advice about the code of ethics.

“We average about 26 calls a day from people seeking advice from us,” she said.

Her office would also lose its communications staffer, leaving it unable to do any outreach or public education. The State Ethics Office also would lose its ability to do any enforcement, she said.

“I’m not sure what we’re left with. Perhaps, as I understand it now, collecting the filings but not even being able to enforce late filings,” Carson said.

The consolidation also raises the potential for conflicts of interest as legal staffs are reduced and tasked with serving all the different offices. Carson said her office is responsible for handling allegations about any state employee, including those who work for the Office of Government Accountability.

“By keeping us as kind of a small agency, we limit that risk and there are additional restrictions by statute on all the staff and employees as well as the board of the Office of State Ethics. You would take them outside of that,” she said.

Carson said the proposal moves control over most of the functions of her office to someone who reports directly to the governor.

The agencies currently under the Office of Government Accountability include the Office of State Ethics; the State Elections Enforcement Commission; the Freedom of Information Commission; the Judicial Review Council; the Judicial Selection Commission; the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners; the Office of the Child Advocate; the Office of the Victim Advocate; and the State Contracting Standards Board.