Is Stefan Pryor or the Connecticut Council for Education Reform breaking the law?

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As Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor and his agency must adhere to the Connecticut ethics laws that apply to public officials and public agencies.

The Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) is a corporate funded lobbying and advocacy group that is working to support Governor Malloy’s education reform initiatives.  As a lobbying group, CCER must adhere to the ethics laws that apply to lobbying organizations.

But when it comes to the relationship between the Connecticut Council for Education Reform and Pryor’s state agency, something is significantly amiss.

CCER was part of the $6 million record-breaking lobbying effort that led to the passage of Governor Malloy’s corporate education reform industry initiative in 2012.

The Connecticut Council for Education Reform’s Board of Directors includes the retired Chairman and CEO of The Hartford Insurance Company, the President and COO of the Travelers Companies, the President and CEO of Yale New Haven Hospital, a Managing Director at First Niagara Bank, the Lead Director at Webster Bank, the Chair of Nestle Waters North America, former gubernatorial candidate Ned Lamont and others.

The Executive Director of CCER is a registered lobbyist and the organization retains one of  the state’s better known lobbying companies.

When it comes to their rhetoric and propaganda, CCER stays true to the corporate education reform industry’s agenda. Recently CCER put out a press release stating,

 “We will oppose any delay in implementation of the Common Core State Standards.”

But as reported earlier this year on Wait, What? this education reform lobbying group has been playing an increasingly significant role in the internal functioning of the State Department of Education.

At last month’s State Department of Education’s quarterly Alliance District Convening meeting, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, Jeffrey Villar, was a lead presenter at a session entitled, “District Strategic Planning.”

The meeting agenda read:

“CCER will share best practices and tools for district-wide, long-term strategic planning. This will include strategies to establish Board of Education goals, develop district indicators of success, and design a process to monitor implementation. Districts will also learn about how the CCER can help districts workshop their Year 3 Alliance and Priority School District consolidated applications.”

Katie Roy, the Connecticut Council for Education Reform’s Chief Operating Officer also presented to the group of local school administrators, teachers and parents.

This means that at an official meeting between the State Department of Education and officials from Connecticut’s 30 Alliance Districts, participants were told that the lobbying group known as CCER “can help districts workshop their Year 3 Alliance and Priority School District consolidated applications.”

A lobbying organization can “help districts workshop their Year 3 Alliance and Priority School District consolidated applications”?

That is more than a bit odd…

First off, CCER is a corporate funded lobbying group and has no expertise with Alliance Districts, the State Department of Education or the Alliance District and Priority District funding grants.  Their expertise is trying to persuade legislators to support Governor Malloy’s education reform efforts.

Second, what makes the whole situation even stranger is that as a result of a series of Freedom of Information requests filed with the appropriate state agencies, it turns out that there is NO CONTRACT between the State Department of Education and the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER).

So how did CCER get the job of “helping” Alliance Districts and who is picking up the tab for these “services.”

The State of Connecticut isn’t paying CCER, but if the lobbying group is “donating” the services to school districts then that raises a slew of ethics and legal issues.

And to make matters even more suspicious, the lobbying reports that the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) has submitted to the Office of State Ethics doesn’t come close to showing the time and costs CCER has already devoted to the task of “helping” Alliance Districts.

Stefan Pryor’s State Department of Education has instructed Alliance Districts that a lobbying group with no expertise is available to help them prepare grant applications that will then be approved or rejected by Pryor and the State Department of Education.

In the real world we call that a conflict of interest.

It is time for the Malloy administration and the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER) to come clean on exactly what role CCER is playing at the State Department of Education and whether Commissioner Pryor or CCER are violating any Connecticut laws in the process.

ConnCAN signs $200,000 contract with major Connecticut lobby firm

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The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, Inc. (ConnCAN), the charter school advocacy group that was created by the founders of Achievement First, the state’s largest charter school management company, has signed a two-year, $200,000 lobbying contract with Connecticut government relations firm, Gaffney, Bennett and Associates.

In addition, ConnCAN staff will continue to lobby on behalf of Governor Malloy’s education reform initiatives.

Last year, ConnCAN and its sister organization, the Connecticut Coalition for Advocacy Now, Inc. (ConnAD) spent more than $693,000 lobbying for Malloy’s education bill.  Along with Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and other corporate funded education reform groups, ConnCAN’s lobby levels broke all previous records for legislative lobbying.

In the month of January alone, ConnCAN spent more than $15,000 on its government relations activities.

However, interestingly, the January Client Lobbyist Financial Report that ConnCAN filed with the Office of State Ethics, as required by Chapter 10, Part II of the Connecticut General Statutes, makes absolutely no mention of the public opinion poll that ConnCAN conducted in January and released earlier this week.

The report, which covers the period from January 1 to January 31st, 2013 was filed with the Office of State Ethics on February 11th.

Failure to disclose expenditures for lobbying and expenditures for activities in furtherance of lobbying is a major violation of Connecticut law.

If the poll was shared with legislators or used as part of any communication seeking to persuade others to communicate with legislators then ConnCAN is required to include those expenses on its ethics report.

However, ConnCAN’s January Form ETH-2D failed to provide any information about the recent poll they conducted.

Meanwhile, the lobby firm of Gaffney, Bennett and Associates has been working for ConnCAN or ConnAD since the two organizations were formed about six years ago.

In addition to ConnCAN, Gaffney, Bennett’s clients include, AT&T Wireless, the City of Stamford,  Exxon/Mobil, GE, Hartford Healthcare Corporation, NBC, Pitney Bowes Corp., Procter & Gamble and Quinnipiac University to name a few.

Connecticut’s House Republicans step forward to protect open, fair and accountable government

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If you found that hard to read, imagine how hard it was to write…

But it is true.

Last week, the leader of the House Republicans blasted Governor Malloy’s plan to undermine Connecticut’s watchdog agencies.

Representative Cafero observed that Governor Malloy’s budget proposal is, “…an attempt to undermine the public’s right to know what is going on within government.” 

Cafero added, “Investigations into campaign finance fraud, ethics complaints and Freedom of Information challenges will fall by the wayside if this proposal goes forward.’’  

While Democratic leaders remained silent or tip-toed around the issue, the House Republicans stepped forward to speak the truth.

The independence of Connecticut’s watchdog and good government entities is under assault.

What are these good government entities?

In 1974, following the Watergate scandal, the Connecticut General Assembly created the State Elections Commission (Public Act 74-213) to “ensure the integrity of the state’s electoral process.”

In 1975, Connecticut passed one of the most far-reaching Freedom of Information Acts in the nation and created the Freedom of Information Commission (Public Act 75-342) to “ensure citizen access to the records and meetings of public agencies in the State of Connecticut.”

And in 1977, the General Assembly formed the Connecticut State Ethics Commission (Public Act 77-600) to “promote the highest ethical standards and accountability in state government by providing education and legal advice, ensuring disclosure, and impartially enforcing the Codes of Ethics.”

In each case, the commissions and offices were set up to be bi-partisan or non-partisan entities, independent of any inappropriate political influence from the administrative or legislative branches of government.  The laws were designed to protect each entity’s fundamental mission to oversee Connecticut’s campaign finance laws, Connecticut’s freedom of information laws and Connecticut’s ethics laws.

Over the years, although Connecticut’s laws were already some of the strongest in the country, state government expanded and strengthened its good government statutes even more, further ensuring open and fair elections and government. 

In 2005, Connecticut adopted a Citizens’ Election Program, considered the “most sweeping public campaign finance program in the country. “

Then, in 2011, Governor Malloy proposed merging the government watchdog agencies into a single entity called the Office of Governmental Accountability.

While the Connecticut General Assembly revised Malloy’s original proposal to allow the various watchdog entities to retain some independence, the legislation, (Public Act 11-48) created the position of Executive Administrator, a position appointed by the governor.  The job of the Executive Administrator was to “provide consolidated personnel, payroll, affirmative action, and administrative and business office function.”

In this way, the Office of the Governor was given far greater reach into the day-to-day operations of the independent, government watchdog agencies.

However, as the Office of Governmental Accountability’s website notes, even today, each entity within the Office of Governmental Accountability “retains its independent decision-making authority, including for budgetary and employment decisions.”

But just a couple of weeks  ago, as part of his proposed state budget, Governor Malloy and his OPM Secretary, Ben Barnes, proposed doing way with that independent budget and employment decision-making authority.

As Representative Cafero explained, “All these watchdogs we rely on to ensure the rights of individuals and root out government fraud and mismanagement would fall under authority of an appointee of the governor. We will be losing any autonomy in these units.’’

Considering Connecticut’s long standing commitment to good government and independent watchdog agencies, the Governor’s decision to make this unprecedented power grab is beyond belief.

But that is exactly what Governor Malloy has done…

And to date, only the Republican legislators have stood up to say they will fight to put an end to Malloy’s proposal.

Malloy says: I know, let’s finish off the effectiveness of the government watchdog agencies…

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In his first budget, Governor Malloy went a long way toward undermining the effectiveness of Connecticut’s landmark Freedom of Information Commission, Office of State Ethics, State Elections Enforcement Commission and Connecticut’s other watch dog and good government agencies by merging them into a single agency, reducing their resources and giving financial control to a political appointee.

Although he somehow forgot to mention it during his speech last week, Malloy’s new state budget plan takes another giant leap forward in his effort to destroy Connecticut’s once stellar standing as having one of the best good government programs in the nation.

The CTMirror has the details in an article entitled “Howls as Malloy tries to shorten leash on watchdogs,” but the quote of the day goes to Malloy’s Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, Ben Barnes, who says of the proposal to destroy the remaining independence of the watchdog agencies, “There is nothing insidious about this.”

As quoted in the CTMirror article, James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information explains, “These proposals can only be explained as an effort to gain control over the guarantors of transparency and integrity in government…We ask why the Malloy administration is determined to emasculate the independent watchdogs?”

As the CTMirror explains, “Malloy’s plan would give a gubernatorial appointee, the executive director of the Office of Government Accountability, the authority to assign and discipline lawyers whose duties could include investigating Malloy or some future governor.”

The CTMirror summarizes the situation noting, “The change would remove a layer of political insulation that protects the agencies and the governor: The watchdogs are free of executive influence, real or perceived; and the governor’s office is protected against accusations of protecting friends or punishing enemies.”

Imagine what the Democrats would be saying if a Republican governor made such an outrageous proposal.

I bet if we listen carefully, we can hear John Rowland laughing…