Madeline Stocker / CTNewsJunkie
Hillary Clinton speaks April on the UConn campus in Storrs. (Madeline Stocker / CTNewsJunkie)

UConn Foundation Has Become A Slush Fund For Frivolity, Shielded From Public Scrutiny

Why do people hate hypocrisy so much? After all, there are worse sins. Robbing a convenience store or gunning down a bunch of schoolchildren comes to mind, for example. Yet when public officials say one thing and do another, it gets the blood boiling like nothing else.

At the same time, hypocrisy in public life should come as no surprise. Having written about politics since my college years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most politicians are phonies — and the higher up the food chain you go, the phonier they are.

But alarms nonetheless went off when I learned last week that Hillary Clinton had earned a cool quarter of a million bucks for the task of doling out crumbs of wisdom to the UConn community for half an hour in April. Again, this should come as no surprise, as the Clintons’ speech-making prowess is now legendary. Former President Bill Clinton has made almost $105 million giving speeches since he left office in January 2001.

In this case, however, it was my ox being gored. How could a cash-strapped, taxpayer-funded university in my home state — an institution that’s raising tuition by 6.5 percent next year — fork over that kind of cash to a piggy-backing celebrity whose main claim to fame is that she’s married to a former president who gets paid even more to make a speech than she does?

At this point, UConn is hanging its hat on the university’s foundation, which officials say paid for Hillary’s Oprah-like chat with UConn President Susan Herbst. But we have no way of confirming that because the notoriously secretive University of Connecticut Foundation is exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information laws. Nevertheless, two gubernatorial candidates are saying it’s distinction without a difference anyway.

Independent gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Pelto, who was first elected state representative while still a UConn student, insists that the university has subsidized the foundation with $86 million out of the UConn operating budget over the last decade. Likely GOP nominee Tom Foley has also slammed the transaction as a “misappropriation.”

But even more troubling is the possibility, raised by The New Haven Register in a blistering editorial last week, that Hillary’s fee is tantamount to a tax-deductible campaign donation by the Fusco family, which established the UConn Foundation fund that paid her ridiculous fee.

And seeing as Hillary is in the middle of a much-noticed but disastrous book tour, how wise is it for the foundation to be paying her to appear before a highly educated university audience? If anything, Hillary’s publisher should be cutting a check to the university for the privilege of reaching a lucrative block of potential readers.

Then there is the matter of Hillary herself. As a capitalist, I don’t resent her ability to sell herself to the highest bidder. I’d love to make hundreds of thousands for a few hours of my time. But I’m not someone who complains a lot about income inequality or who brags about supporting the estate tax, while doing everything possible to protect my estate from it, using methods available only to the top one percent.

Nor am I a member of the academy who calls for social justice while happily supplying an obscene payday to a publicity-seeking politician with an eight-figure net worth.

Perhaps all this hypocrisy is a blessing in disguise. It has had the unintended effect of focusing attention on the UConn Foundation, which has also been used in recent years to fund the travels of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to such exotic places as China and Switzerland. Looks like anytime the state wants to spend money on something it knows it can’t get away with, it turns to the foundation as a sort of slush fund that shields it from the charge of using taxpayer funds for frivolous endeavors. Plus, using the foundation protects the state from those pesky Freedom of Information laws that torment the government.

If ever there’s a time for lawmakers to shine some sunlight on that foundation, it’s right now.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.