When Gov. Dan Malloy and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly decided in 2011 to consolidate several agencies, including three of the largest autonomous watchdog units, and essentially put them under his control, he was met with cries of well-earned protest from open-government advocates.
“Don’t you worry your pretty little heads,” the Malloy administration countered. “We’re just trying to save money. We won’t interfere with or disrupt the operations of those precious agencies.”
Lo and behold, it looks like the new director of the Office of Government Accountability (OGA) has interfered in just the way the office’s critics had feared.
Shelby J. Brown was appointed executive administrator of the OGA after the disastrous tenure of her predecessor, David Guay, who seemed to think he wasn’t “accountable” to the very people who were charged with evaluating him.
The 2011 move by Malloy put the erstwhile independent offices of elections enforcement, ethics, and freedom of information under the supervision of a Malloy appointee. Officials from all three agencies protested the consolidation, warning it could create conflicts and weaken the agencies’ authority. For example, what if any one of those agencies was investigating or considering sanctions against Malloy administration officials or even the governor himself?
Last month, through the Courant’s Jon Lender, we learned that Brown ordered a seizure of a computer in the elections enforcement agency — something officials in that office called a “major security breach.” Sound like an overreaction? Not really.
The state Elections Enforcement Commission was investigating whether the state Democratic Party illegally used state contractor contributions to fund Malloy’s 2014 re-election effort.
Brown left no doubt about whom she reports to. After seeking to strengthen her authority last week before the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, she flatly told the Mirror’s Mark Pazniokas, “Quite frankly, I work for the governor. That’s who appointed me.” But she felt emboldened to seize a computer belonging to an agency that was investigating the governor’s re-election campaign?
When broad powers are conferred upon individuals, they’re tempted to become arrogant — and on that score, Brown did not disappoint.
Confronted by officials from the agencies, Brown was untroubled by the possibility that the seized computer might have contained information about an investigation into the doings of her boss. Indeed, her petulance and insouciance were breathtaking.
“Certainly, you can connect all kinds of dots in the universe,” Brown said. “There are lots of ways to do that, right? You can connect the fact there was a full moon last night to what I had for breakfast. You know what I mean?”
No, I don’t know what you mean. It’s an absurd comparison — one that is shocking in its effrontery and lack of regard for the canons of ethics by which most of us judge public officials.
And there is the broader issue of having a governor who thinks it’s appropriate to have the authority to appoint an official whose office might investigate the executive branch — to say nothing of the kind of jerry-built hierarchy bestowed on the OGA at its inception.
The governor has the authority to hire an OGA executive administrator but the newly created Government Accountability Commission has the authority to fire the administrator. This created problems when Guay, the first administrator, refused to submit to an evaluation by the commission on the grounds that he reports to Malloy.
When Guay finally left, one of the criticisms in the commission’s evaluation was that Guay was lacking in regular communication with the various offices of the OGA. And the same charge was leveled last week at Brown. Both Colleen Murphy, who heads the Freedom of Information Commission, and Carol Carson, the executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said they were blindsided, as Brown provided no warning to them of her testimony last week. Notice a pattern here?
Administration officials said Brown’s job was supposed to save money by consolidating “back-office” support for the three agencies and providing human resources services. The budget for the new office is $8.6 million, or about 80 percent of what it was when the three agencies were truly independent.
I’m all for saving money by streamlining government. But this is one of those cases where less is more. Just think of the ways in which weakened or compromised watchdog agencies can actually cost us money. Go ahead. It doesn’t take much of an imagination.
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