Last week, the Washington Post reported that former Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton was paid more than $251,250 to speak to 2,300 students at the University of Connecticut in April. The news has at least two gubernatorial candidates crying foul, while Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the foundation defended the decision.
At an unrelated event Monday, Malloy said it’s his understanding that the money was given to the University of Connecticut Foundation with the express purpose of paying Clinton’s speaking fee.
“They were private dollars and that’s how they got spent,” Malloy said.
University of Connecticut Foundation President Josh Newton said the money for Clinton’s visit came from the Edmund Fusco Family of New Haven. The family set up a special fund with the foundation to cover costs associated with its speaker series.
“No tuition or tax dollars are used to pay speakers who come to UConn as part of the series,” Newton said. “As with all donations, the foundation honors the intent of the donor; to use the funds for any purpose other than that specified by the donor would be a breach of the agreement.”
But not everybody believes him.
Jonathan Pelto, a third-party candidate for governor, said the claim that no taxpayer dollars were used to fund Clinton’s 30-minute speaking engagement is misleading.
He said the University of Connecticut Foundation is a private organization which is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information laws. Without access to the foundation’s financials, it’s hard to know — beyond trusting what they say — where the money to pay Clinton may have originated.
“In a long standing deal between the University of Connecticut and its foundation, UConn uses taxpayer and students’ funds to subsidize the foundation so that it will look more successful,” Pelto alleged in a statement. He also pointed out that the speech came at a time when state support for the university has declined and tuition is expected to increase 6.5 percent in 2015.
“This year approximately $9 million will be shifted from UConn’s taxpayer and student-funded operating fund to the foundation,” Pelto said. “To suggest that none of that money helped pay for Hillary Clinton’s fee and visit to UConn is simply wrong.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley agreed with Pelto.
“Diverting funds meant to benefit UConn students to political purposes is a particularly egregious violation of the public trust,” Foley said in a statement last week.
However, in fairness Clinton did not speak about her potential bid for president in 2016, and University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst did not ask her about it.
Clinton spoke about the millennial generation, and did not shy away from topics like immigration, foreign policy, and whistleblower Edward Snowden. She was presented with UConn onesies for her future grandchildren.
Meanwhile, legislation that would have brought greater transparency to the University of Connecticut Foundation died in committee this year after a public hearing in February.
Paula Pearlman, a staff attorney for the Freedom of Information Commission, testified that under current law the UConn Foundation is not considered a public agency even though it clearly serves a public function.
“As its mission states the Foundation operates exclusively to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research, and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut. Thus arrangements between the UConn Foundation and the University of Connecticut are part of the conduct of the public’s business and not to be subject to greater public scrutiny under the FOI Act,” Pearlman told the Government Administration and Elections Committee in February.
The legislation also would have subjected the foundation to financial audits by the Auditors of Public Accounts.
Claude Albert, legislative chair of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, testified that his organization believes the foundation “acts largely as a surrogate for the university.”
“It manages hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of the school. It raises money on behalf of the school,” Albert told the committee in February.
Albert said disclosure of the information should inspire even greater confidence in the organization and its mission.
Malloy said he thought the foundation was pretty transparent and that for every dollar the state invests in staffing the foundation, $8 to $9 is returned.
“They’ve raised about $711 million over the last few years,” Malloy said. “That’s a very substantial commitment on the part of alumni, foundations, and employers in the state of Connecticut, so I don’t know what the rules to transparency are with respect to the foundation. Happy to take a look at them.”