Courtesy of the Republican caucus
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton (Courtesy of the Republican caucus)

It wasn’t the recent boost in salary for the University of Connecticut’s president that prompted state Rep. Gail Lavielle to propose legislation to require more transparency from the University of Connecticut Foundation.

Rather, the Wilton Republican said it disturbed her that the state continues to increase bond funds for the university while tuition keeps climbing. As a state representative, Lavielle said it’s hard to evaluate exactly what the university truly needs because it’s unclear how much help is coming from the foundation, which is a private, nonprofit organization.

“I just don’t see enough responsibility, accountability coming from UConn to shut our eyes to what it’s doing,” Lavielle said.

The foundation recently made headlines when it decided to fund a $300,000 boost to UConn President Susan Herbst’s $520,000 university salary. And last year, the UConn Foundation paid former Secretary of the State Hillary Clinton $251,250 to speak to 2,300 students. In 2013, it paid $660,000 in cash to buy a house in Hartford’s west end for Herbst to use to entertain big-money donors. Before that, the foundation paid for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to attend world economic summits in Switzerland and China.

According to the foundation’s website it “operates exclusively to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research, and recreational objectives of the University of Connecticut.”

But Lavielle, who pre-filed the bill, said legislators have no way of knowing that because there’s no way to see where the money is being spent.

It’s not a partisan issue, either.

Rep. Roberta Willis, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said the use of foundation money to pay Herbst really brings the issue to the forefront, but it’s an issue she’s been concerned about for years.

Courtesy of the Democratic caucus
Rep. Roberta Willis (Courtesy of the Democratic caucus)

“There is no question that this is going to get opened up to conversation again this year,” Willis said Sunday.

Since the university pays an administrative fee with public operating dollars to the foundation in order for the foundation to conduct fundraising on its behalf, there’s an argument to be made that the foundation’s finances should be open to public scrutiny.

Both Willis and Lavielle believe this can be accomplished without disclosing the identity of donors who wish to remain anonymous.

Lavielle said she’s not asking to see who is donating, but wants the organization to account publicly for how the money is being spent.

Similar legislation was proposed last year and promoted by open government advocates, but it failed to get very far and died in the General Administration and Elections committee after a public hearing in February.

James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said he believes UConn is the only public university in New England to keep it’s foundation operations secret.

“It’s time for the college to get in line with their brethren,” Smith said Friday.

Smith said his organization plans to support legislation that would open the books on the UConn Foundation.

Paula Pearlman, a staff attorney for the Freedom of Information Commission, testified last year 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,” Pearlman said. “Thus arrangements between the UConn Foundation and the University of Connecticut are part of the conduct of the public’s business and [ought] to be subject to greater public scrutiny under the FOI Act.”

That legislation also would have subjected the foundation to financial audits by the Auditors of Public Accounts.

The foundation is required to report on an annual basis to the Internal Revenue Service, but it is not subject to Freedom of Information laws and does not have to disclose information about its donors, expenditures, or fundraising activities.

The foundation did not return requests for comment for this article.