HARTFORD, CT — The indictment of a former Vernon man charged with scheming to secure funding for a fake pocket pita company may give new momentum to legislation that would toughen oversight of state tax credits and economic incentives.
The former Vernon man, Mohsen Youssef, 26, was charged last week by U.S. Attorney Deirdre M. Daly for allegedly supplying false information about his pita company when applying for loans, lines of credit, lease financing, and state grants. According to the indictment, at least $400,000 of the $3 million Youssef obtained came from the Department of Economic and Community Development’s Small Business Express Program.
Youssef, who has dual U.S. and Egyptian citizenship, pleaded not guilty to the charges and has been detained since his arrest.
State Comptroller Kevin Lembo was unable to convince Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last year to sign a bill that would allow for the examination of certain business tax credits and economic incentives, like the ones Youssef received.
This year he’s trying again.
Lembo, whose bill was the subject of a Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee public hearing Tuesday, said he wants to make sure someone other than the executive branch is evaluating the hundreds of millions of dollars the state spends every year on businesses and economic development incentives.
“Rule number one is to let data drive our decisions — especially concerning our state economy,” Lembo said. “When hundreds of millions of dollars and resources are at stake, the state must have the ability to best evaluate whether these investments are actually promoting economic development and growing the kind of jobs essential to our state.”
Lembo’s proposal would authorize the state Auditors of Public Accounts to establish a professional advisory committee to evaluate economic incentives. The proposal would also expand the current scope of evaluation to include all business incentive programs, including tax credits, tax abatement, loans, grants, and any other business assistance meant to encourage economic development.
The Small Business Express program, which was created in 2011 with bipartisan support, offers grants and loans to small businesses. It awarded Youssef, the supposed owner of Amoun Pita of South Windsor, a $300,000 loan and a $100,000 grant in 2012.
According to DECD, the state funding was meant to retain 11 jobs and hire 25 more people. At the time of his loan application, Youssef had only an average of $33.62 in the bank, according to the indictment.
Asked Wednesday whether Youssef’s indictment might help push Lembo’s bill this year, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said it was possible.
“Anytime there is a misuse of public funds” it gives bills such as Lembo’s a better chance of passing, Aresimowicz said. The speaker said that while he hasn’t taken a poll of Democratic legislators on how they feel about Lembo’s bill this year, “many of our members are supportive.”
A similar bill passed the House 149-0 and the Senate 36-0 last year before it was vetoed by Malloy. The House overruled Malloy’s veto, but the Senate failed to reconsider it.
Lembo wants the auditors to review one-third of the incentives each year, rather than a review every three years conducted by two executive branch agencies.
Lembo would also like to see public hearings on some of the proposals.
“A public hearing will ensure an open and inclusive process that provides an opportunity for the public and all businesses, including those receiving assistance — and those hoping to receive assistance — to be heard,” Lembo said.
Current law places the state Department of Economic and Community Development in charge of evaluating the programs that they administer and publicly promote, Lembo said. Connecticut is one of only two states that charge its economic development agency with evaluating the programs that they administer. Whereas other states have an outside agency evaluate economic development programs.
DECD would continue to provide the data and economic modeling required by the advisory committee to complete the report.
Last year, Malloy viewed the proposal as an attempt to undermine the ability of the executive branch to do its job.
In his veto message, Malloy called the change in the monitoring of the tax incentive program “unnecessary and unwarranted.”
As far as this year’s attempt, Malloy’s spokesperson Chris McClure said they are waiting until the bill gets through the legislative process.
“We are pleased the Comptroller and DECD were able to take steps toward a final bill, but it still has several more steps in the process before it is in front of the governor for signature — and the bill language may change during the iterative process. We look forward to seeing the final piece of legislation,” McClure said.
Lembo’s bill received support from Connecticut AFL-CIO President Lori Pelletier during the public hearing last week.
“Taxpayers have reason to be concerned,” Pelletier said. “Just a few weeks ago the Auditors of Public Accounts released a report that found DECD inadequately monitored the Small Business Express Program. The report found a lack of attention to record keeping, inadequate administrative controls, and failure to adhere to assistance agreement requirements.”