In a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency, Connecticut received a C minus from the Center for Public Integrity.
That’s worse than the B it received from the organization in 2012 — the first time the center did a report. While the two scores are not directly comparable because of changes made to update the project and its methodology, many advocates say the decline is indisputable regardless of the changed methodology.
Connecticut was the third most transparent and accountable state in the nation, but its declining score was mostly attributed to changes made in its landmark public financing program.
Following the resignation of former Gov. John G. Rowland on corruption charges, Connecticut implemented a public campaign financing system that prohibited state contractors from contributing to publicly financed candidates. Part of how that system works was undone in 2013 by Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy and the Democratic majority in the General Assembly. The Democrats’ changes allowed for unlimited amounts to be spent on publicly funded candidates by state parties, and they increased the limit on individual donations from $5,000 to $10,000.
In 2014, the two major party candidates for governor each received $6.5 million in public funds. But they also benefited from more than $19 million from Super PACs and other outside interests — including state contractors, whom Democrats encouraged to contribute to a specific account outside the jurisdiction of state laws.
A few weeks before the 2014 election the Democratic Party decided to use its federal account, which includes money from state contractors, to pay for mailings featuring Malloy and a token get-out-the-vote message. The party is currently in court fighting with state election regulators over their attempt to investigate the legality of those mailings.
The fight over public financing is one of what good-government advocates say is a series of recent setbacks in the state’s efforts to finally shed its well-earned nickname, “Corrupticut.”
As far as access to public records, Connecticut was one of 44 states to receive a failing grade.
Connecticut’s open record law explicitly lists 27 exemptions, but Mitchell Pearlman, the former executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, told the center that other statutes “are literally packed with hundreds, if not thousands,” of exceptions.
Still, even with a grade of C minus, Connecticut fared much better than many other states. Thirty-six states earned D’s and 11 received failing grades.
“The results are disappointing but not surprising,” said Paula Franzese, an expert in state and local government ethics at Seton Hall University School of Law and former chairwoman of the New Jersey State Ethics Commission. With many states still struggling financially, ethics oversight in particular is among the last issues to receive funding, according to Franzese.
“It’s not the sort of issue that commands voters,” she said.
The other issue watchdogs have cited as a problem in Connecticut was a decision a few years ago by the Malloy administration to consolidate the nine watchdog agencies, including the Freedom of Information Commission, Office of State Ethics, and State Elections Enforcement Commission under one umbrella with one executive administrator.
Watchdogs worry that the Office for Government Accountability will undercut their responsibilities as watchdogs and regulators. Those worries materialized earlier this year when Shelby Brown, the executive administrator, seized a computer from the State Elections Enforcement Commission during its investigation of the get-out-the-vote mailers sent on behalf of Malloy’s campaign.
There was concern among members of the commission that Brown could hand over investigatory files to Malloy, who she considers to be her boss. The computer was eventually handed over to the chief state’s attorney, but the battle over who has the power to do what continues to rage between the watchdogs and the executive administrator.
“If I were queen of the world,” said Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, she would make her agency completely independent.