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Tighten Rules, End Sweetheart State Hiring

Laws and LegislationElectionsFinanceColleges and Universities

Courant readers have been paying close attention to my colleague Jon Lender's stories on state government officials hiring relatives for summer jobs in their departments. It's a dispiriting enough tale to have caught the attention of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Malloy expressed his disappointment in his appointees and others. Fifteen months before a difficult re-election campaign, should Malloy decide to undertake it, is a bad time to be on the wrong side of an extended expose of privilege and entitlement at the expense of the deserving.

There's a solution to this insidious abuse of fairness in the Malloy administration. Massachusetts requires many public officials to disclose the hiring of relatives in filings with the state's Ethics Commission. A survey by The Springfield Republican newspaper found filings from legislators, county sheriffs and statewide officeholders. "Under state ethics law, dozens of elected officials and other employees in municipal and state government have filed the disclosures detailing a range of affiliations or relationships," according to an August story.

The Massachusetts law casts a broad net and is intended to dispel the public's suspicions (often based on unseemly fact) that officials frequently use their public trust to advance relatives, ignoring the superior merits of strangers. The law applies to connections between government and the array of organizations it funds. In Connecticut, this would require a lot of disclosures because the state funds many non-profit organizations that find it advantageous to hire state officials, their spouses or other family members. It's enough to make you think fairness takes long holidays when state funds are in the golden pipeline.

The Massachusetts law relies on public scrutiny rather than a strict prohibition. It doesn't stop the boldest of operators. The Bulgers, that notorious Boston criminal and political family, still pocket pensions from various government enterprises.

In the spirit of reform, however, a Connecticut version of the law could include quasi-public agencies such as the Metropolitan District Commission and Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority. The MDC is in the midst of a $1 billion construction program and is the bastion of insiderdom.

A Connecticut insider disclosure law could also include recipients of the hundreds of millions in corporate welfare that is threatening to become the Malloy administration's royalist hallmark. A thriving Stamford hedge fund's state subsidized waterfront helicopter pad is its most vivid and infuriating symbol.

Speaking of publicly financed privilege, another story from Massachusetts provides a cautionary tale and inspiration for change in Connecticut. Former Trinity College President Evan Dobelle serves (for now) as president of Westfield State University. Someone at the school's foundation thought it would be a good idea to provide Dobelle with a credit card to pay for fundraising dinners and other incidentals.

Two hundred thousand dollars later, Westfield State's foundation realized it had made a mistake. Trips to Bangkok and London, tickets for Tanglewood, and a limousine to and from New York are a few of the highlights in a devastating Boston Globe story last Sunday. The article features reference to Dobelle's insufferable self-advertisements as a visionary of the Steve Jobs sort.

State officials are investigating Dobelle's extravagant practices, which include putting "thousands" in charges on a card issued to his executive assistant. The Globe notes Dobelle "struggled" to explain that. The executive assistant, Nanci Salvidio, is now an associate vice president at the school.

When he was at Trinity, Dobelle hired then-state Sen. Kevin Sullivan at the same time Dobelle needed state bond money to build a buffer between the privileged on the Hartford campus and the crime-ridden neighborhood. At Westfield State, Dobelle recently hired Westfield Republican state Sen. Michael Knapik to work in fundraising. Knapik had to resign his seat to take the job, but not before casting the only Republican vote in the senate for a Democratic budget and tax increase.

In Connecticut, state auditors have no jurisdiction over the University of Connecticut Foundation, though taxpayers provide it with millions each year. Nor is it subject to the Freedom of Information Act that would let the sun shine on its secret doings. Some public oversight could do no harm and it might, as Massachusetts is discovering, add to the public good.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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