Representatives from three key watchdog agencies – the Office of State Ethics, the Freedom of Information Commission and the Elections Enforcement Commission – gathered outside of the House of Representatives earlier this evening.
Ethics chief Carol Carson, FOIC head Colleen Murphy and Nancy Nicolescu with Elections huddled around Rep. Patricia Billie Miller, D-Stamford, a vice-chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
I didn’t have to be standing next to them to know the topic of the conversation – the pending merger of their three agencies, along with six smaller entities, into the controversial Office of Government Accountability. The watchdogs – along with good government groups like the non-profit Common Cause - are worried the move will strip Ethics, FOIC and Elections Enforcement of the independence and resources needed to keep an eye on elected officials in “Corrupticut.”
The merger, proposed by new Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy of Stamford, made it into the budget legislative Democrats approved earlier this month. But the nitty gritty details still need to be formalized in so-called budget implementer legislation. Word is the implementer creating the accountability office could be voted on later this evening, which explains why the watchdogs are trying to exert a bit of last minute face-to-face influence.
Some changes have, according to lawmakers in the know, been made, as outlined in the report our Hearst newspapers published this evening.
“We’ve gotten it to a different place,” Nicolescu said.
But even those alterations – such as allowing the nine entities being joined a greater say in the choice of a department director and in recommending which functions to merge – have raised eyebrows. Since the six smaller entities are composed of a hefty amount of gubernatorial appointees, critics argue the executive branch will still appear to have far too much influence over Ethics, FOIC and Elections.
“People who don’t have the same independence we do,” Murphy said. “They will outnumber us.”
And Rep. Russ Moren, D-Wethersfield, who as co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee has been involved in reviewing the merger proposal, said at this point after so many alterations he’s not even sure exactly how much money it’s going to save.
My reporter’s gut tells me had a Republican governor – say the recently retired M. Jodi Rell – proposed exactly the same changes, Democratic leaders would be holding press conferences to mock the Office of Government Accountability as a power grab and it would never have survived the session. When Rell, who helped implement several ethics reforms, sought in 2009 to eliminate a couple of what she considered duplicative agencies, like the Healthcare Advocate, Democrats went nuts.
But Malloy’s the first Democratic governor in over two decades and this is his first budget and, well, you know how it goes.
I mentioned that thought to Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, who does share concerns about the watchdogs losing their independence. But Godfrey noted, “We have a higher comfort level with a Governor Malloy than we ever did with Rell.” It’s what future Republican governors might do with any additional control over the watchdogs that Godfrey’s worried about.
I caught up with Miller after her conversation with the watchdogs. She said there are some good arguments about the merger and the governor having too much authority, but gave no indication she planned to oppose changes already authorized in the new budget.
“At this point we’re going to have to play it out and see what happens,” Miller said.