Both Republicans and Democrats on the Commerce Committee say they aren’t concerned with credit card records from the DECD that show agency officials spending state money on car services and international travel.
They say the use of car services for trips to Boston and New York are part of the job.
Records of purchases on state-issued credit cards obtained by CTNewsJunkie show that Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith used car services three times between April 2012 and April 2013, and her deputy, Ron Angelo, used Premier Limousine services to get to and from a conference in Boston.
In a phone interview, Smith said she used the car service to get from Newark to her home in Connecticut after last year’s trip to China with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. She used the same car service in July 2012 and recently in March 2013 to get home after a marathon day of meetings in New York City. Each one-way trip cost about $370.
“We try not to use them very often because they are very expensive, but we do use them when they’re more cost effective for us,” Smith said.
Smith said she approved the use of the limo service in June 2012 for Angelo’s trip to the Bio Boston conference, which boasted 16,505 industry leaders in biotechnology from 49 states and 65 countries. Angelo ended his day at the Northeast Utilities hospitality suite at Fenway Park to take in a baseball game along with five other development directors from the region, Smith said.
The round trip cost the state more than $620.
“He probably could have [driven his own car] but he had a whole lot of things he needed to do. We tried to find a staff member to drive him,” Smith said.
Not knowing all the circumstances, Sen. Scott Frantz, the ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee, said he’ll “take them at their word.”
“On occasion it’s permissible to use a car service,” Frantz said. “What I know of them, I’m confident they will use extremely good judgment.”
Sen. Gary LeBeau, co-chairman of the Commerce Committee, agreed. He said that while he thinks they could have probably gotten a better deal on the service, it’s important for them to be as productive as possible.
“Their time in the car is valuable,” LeBeau said. “It’s an extension of their office.”
Asked if they couldn’t get the same amount of work done on the train or through some other form of public mass transit, LeBeau said there’s too many distractions.
However, Deputy Speaker Jeffrey Berger wasn’t 100 percent sold on the expense.
“We should try to use mass transit instead of limo services,” Berger said.
Car services are a “little expensive given we are the stewards of public funds,” he added. However, “it’s important for the DECD to network in the region and increase our economic development footprint both locally and nationally.”
Smith said she did use the train to get down to New York at least two times, but by the time she was ready to depart it was after 9 p.m.
“We’ve had how many governors in state this week?” Smith said, referring to June visits from the governors of Texas and South Dakota. “We think it’s important for us to get out and about and talk to companies about Connecticut.”
Aside from a trip by some of her staff members to San Antonio last year, Smith’s team has also been to New Orleans, Copenhagen, London, Washington D.C., and Charlotte over the past 12 months.
“We have developed a comprehensive international and national strategy,” Smith said.
Most of the international strategy focuses on key industry clusters such as aerospace and bioscience.
Angelo was at the Paris Air Show in June and credit card receipts show Smith traveled to Farnborough Air Show in London in July 2012. Smith and another DECD staff member stayed at the Hotel Waterloo in London at a cost of $972.
Soon after she returned from that trip she met Malloy at the Capital Grille in Stamford, where they dined with three executives from a company they are trying to get to come to Connecticut. The bill for the dinner was $583.
The biggest trip Smith took last year was to the World Economic Forum in China, also with Malloy.
The trip cost more than $28,066 according to the charges on the credit card issued to Smith, but some of that cost to the state was reimbursed by the UConn Foundation.
“The amount of the travel reimbursed was $16,188 and was specifically for Governor Malloy in his role as ex-officio Chair of the Board of Trustees of the University, not for other staff or travelers,” John Sponauer, assistant director for marketing for the UConn Foundation, said last week. “The funds were provided from contributions made to the Foundation by donors for the general support of the University, without the use of any tuition dollars or support otherwise designated for specific programs at the University.”
Smith said she gave a presentation about the trip to the UConn Foundation upon her return. She said the agency has been following up and Angelo actually went back to continue the relationships that were started last year.
“These efforts are worthwhile to start foreign direct investment back into the state,” Smith said, adding that there are 37 U.S. states with offices in China. Connecticut is not among those 37, however.
Because there is little margin for error in these negotiations, Smith said they are targeting specific industries where there already are “natural connections” in the state, such as aerospace and bioscience.
“We’re not willy-nilly throwing letters out there,” Smith said.
In 2012, Connecticut companies sold goods to 198 countries, although France, Canada, and Germany continue to be the state’s largest trading partners. Connecticut exported $1.9 billion in goods to France in 2012 and $1.8 billion to Canada. Exports to China grew 27 percent over the past year, but Smith hopes her visit there will help that number increase.
Smith said her agency continues to develop relationships with international companies looking to partner with Connecticut companies, but is not ready to make any big announcements yet.