Enough Is Enough. The scandals and mismanagement have got to stop. No, I’m not talking about the Trump administration, though there is some merit to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s broken promise to “drain the swamp” on the national level. I say let’s start right here in Connecticut.
In setting about reforming state government, there is an easy place to start. Yes, ethics reform in state government would be great, but it’s a tough nut to crack. In 2013, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley walked into the Capitol with a proposal for ethics reform and quipped, “Why would anyone hire a lobbyist when you can just put a legislator on your payroll?” In the words of Johnny Carson, that went over like pregnant pole vaulter.
I think we should start with the scandal-plagued, low-hanging fruit. You know, that gray area of government — the quasi-public agencies that seem to reward their executives with high salaries and operate with limited transparency and accountability compared to their public- or private-sector counterparts. There are more than a dozen on the statewide level, and many more similar agencies on the regional level.
Some have obvious functions, such as the Lottery Corporation and the Airport Authority. Others have exotic names like the Connecticut Green Bank and Connecticut Innovations. Outside of a handful of policy wonks, no one could really tell you what those last two even do.
And of course, there are regional agencies that resemble quasi-publics and similarly find themselves in hot water from time to time. To wit, the UConn Foundation, the Metropolitan District Commission, and the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative.
In the past several years right up to the present, several of them have been dogged with scandal, impropriety, and mismanagement. To make matters worse, their numbers are growing. Indeed, the situation is so serious that the quasi-publics now find themselves under some much-needed collective fire. Ergo, Gov. Ned Lamont recently pledged to take an “intrusive look” at the quasi-publics after reports of possible wrongdoing, strife, and mismanagement at the lottery and the Port Authority. The situation at the lottery plays like a bad spy novel after the Courant’s Jon Lender broke the story that the lottery’s CEO, concerned about possible wrongdoing, wore an FBI wire to a meeting with the board chair.
Lamont’s move elicited a rare note of high-profile bipartisanship, as Len Fasano, the Republican leader in the Senate, applauded the move. Much to his credit, Fasano has also called on the UConn Foundation, which I have previously called “a sort of slush fund that shields it from the charge of using taxpayer funds for frivolous endeavors,” to pay for all or some of the university’s $20.5 million bill for exiting the American Athletic Conference and returning to the Big East.
The list of quasi-publics over the years that have been rocked with misdeeds cannot be adequately documented in this space, but I will try. At the MDC, there was the Niagara Bottling plant fiasco and the fraudulent investment scheme involving MDC chairman William DiBella and convicted former state treasurer Paul Silvester in the late 1990s.
There is the disastrous Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority (now rebranded as MIRA) and the illegal $220 million loan it made to the now-defunct Enron Corp. — a move that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars after the energy trading giant went belly-up.
There is also the deal Lamont struck with the foundation of billionaire Ray Dalio to donate $100 million to help fund struggling public schools but without the corresponding transparency we would expect, especially with the state matching the gift and helping to staff the board.
And of course, there was the infamous Derbygate, in which board members of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, along with dozens of their family members and friends, took an annual junket to the Kentucky Derby to the tune of $1 million in CMEEC funds over four years. Adding insult to injury, when confronted by angry ratepayers and municipal officials in eastern Connecticut, CMEEC’s top brass were arrogant and secretive.
So what should the Lamont administration do to correct the culture and lack of accountability in the quasi-publics? I don’t pretend to be an expert, though I do feel better informed after reading the handy guide from the Office of Legislative Research about the differences between standard state offices and the quasi-publics.
The quasi-publics are supposed to be more nimble and capable of responding “to problems and opportunities faster and more efficiently than a comparable state agency,” the OLR says. But why does that mean they have to be less transparent? Why must they operate outside the boundaries that other state agencies must observe in order to be accountable to taxpayers?
Almost all the quasi-publics are exempt from state government controls on budgeting, bonding, personnel, purchasing, contracting, and compliance with the Uniform Administrative Procedure Act. The latter exempts the quasi-publics from the kinds of transparencies, inspections, and noticing of policy changes that are expected from ordinary state agencies.
I hope the Lamont administration conducts a rigorous review of these exemptions, along with a thorough examination of why the quasi-publics are not subject to the hiring practices of the rest of the state government. Really, is it any wonder that there is a culture of malfeasance in such a privileged environment?
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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