The Issue: Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and his appearance of a conflict of interest due to his long-standing relationship with Achievement First, the Charter School Management company.
At 1:00 p.m. today the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board will hold a meeting in which they will approve a staff recommendation that although Commissioner Pryor helped create Achievement First and served as one of its Directors until he recently resigned to take the Education Commissioner’s position, he does not have a conflict of interest under state law because he does not have a financial relationship with Achievement First.
The staff of the Office of State Ethics is correct in their interpretation of the law.
This is not about whether Commissioner Pryor has a “legal” conflict of interest under state law.
Nor is it about whether Stefan Pryor is a good choice to lead the Department of Education and serve as Governor Malloy’s point person on education reform.
This is about whether his close relationship with Achievement First creates the appearance of a conflict of interest and whether due to the appearance it would be best for him,the state and Connecticut’s education system if he recused himself – that is abstained – from getting directly involved in decisions that would benefit the organization that he worked so hard to develop and expand.
It is not necessarily a bad thing to have an appearance of a conflict of interest but in a fair, open and transparent system of government it is incumbent on people to be honest and forthcoming about whether a reasonable person would think that their previous relationships might cloud their decision-making on a particular topic.
Imagine the following scenario:
A long-time member of the Hartford Hospital Board of Directors is appointed to serve as the Commissioner of Public Health which oversees the Office of Health Care Access (OCHA). OHCA’s job is to review and then approve or reject every hospitals’ request to expand, purchase major equipment or purchase or partner with other hospitals in the state.
As the new commissioner, this person would be directly responsible for reviewing and recommending which applications move forward to be approved or rejected.
Although the new commissioner of public health was not paid to serve on the Hartford Hospital Board of Directors, he or she nonetheless spent years on that board and had recently even voted to authorize Hartford Hospital to go to OHCA and request permission to purchase major pieces of equipment as well as initiate plans to purchase or partner with other hospitals in Connecticut. In fact, those plans call for almost doubling the number of hospitals under Hartford Hospital’s control so that they could triple the number of patients they serve.
What would Connecticut’s other hospitals say when they knew this former member of the Hartford Hospital Board of Directors would be in a unique position to help Hartford Hospital perhaps at the expense of Connecticut’s other hospitals.
Connecticut law says that since this new commissioner does not have a direct “financial interest” in Hartford Hospital so that he or she does not have a “legal” conflict of interest.
But a reasonable person would say that there is absolutely no doubt that the former director turned commissioner is facing an appearance of a conflict of interest.
Connecticut’s hospitals, elected officials, advocates and the media would all be highlighting the problem and calling upon the new commissioner of public health to recuse himself from decisions that directly impact Hartford Hospital.
They would all be pointing out that there are a lot of other things the commissioner of public health can and should be doing but that using his or her role to make decisions that help Hartford Hospital should not be one of them.
This made up scenario is exactly the situation facing Stefan Pryor, Connecticut’s Commission of Education.
It is NOT about whether he should be commissioner. It is NOT about whether he has a “legal” conflict of interest. It is about doing what is right and fair for everyone involved in the future of Connecticut’s system of public education.
Stefan Pryor should use today’s ethics decision to stand up and show Connecticut that as the state’s Commissioner of Education he will hold himself and his agency to a higher standard of fairness.
Anything short of that and he undermines his own credibility and the role he can play in putting together the best education reform policies for Connecticut.