Sunday, December 16, 2007

New Haven Register Scoop On 'Secret Slush Fund'

Spokesman Says Rell Supports Eliminating 'Contingency Dollars'

Amann has $2M to spend;
Taxpayer group seeks
audit of ‘slush fund’

By Brian McCready
Milford Bureau Chief
New Haven Register

Many nonprofit agency leaders, especially in Milford, view state House Speaker James Amann as a Santa Claus figure, handing out cash from his sack at will.

The question is, where does the money come from, and how is it dispersed? Democratic leaders and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell negotiated a deal in which the state budget has $6 million to be spent at the discretion of Amann, D-Milford, state Sen. President Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Rell.

Essentially, the three leaders have $2 million each to spend as they please. Unlike most state dollars spent, no public hearing is required. Critics question whether the money some of the agencies receive could be better spent elsewhere.

Susan Kniep, president of the Federation of Connecticut Taxpayers Organization, a taxpayer watchdog group formed in the mid-1980s, said she was not aware of the funds until last week, and immediately wrote a letter to state Auditor Robert Jaekle, a Republican, asking for an audit. Kniep, a former East Hartford Republican mayor, maintained the discretionary funds are nothing more than a "secret political slush fund."

But an audit is unlikely because no one has claimed the money is being illegally spent, Jaekle said. He said he is aware there are people who believe the discretionary dollars are "pork barrel spending that does not have the necessary controls," but that sentiment alone does not trigger an audit.

Amann and representatives for Williams and Rell vigorously maintain there are appropriate checks and balances on the funds, and they can’t just be disseminated at will. The "contingency funds," as they are called, are in the state budget through 2009, and prior to 2005 the money was more the product of a "gentlemen’s agreement." The state Office of Policy and Management oversees the fund and ultimately disseminates the money.

"It’s not like I have a barrel of money in my office and I write the checks," Amann said.

Rell’s chief spokesman, Christopher Cooper, said the governor supports eliminating the contingency dollars, saying Rell prefers every dollar being vetted thoroughly before it’s spent. In fact, Cooper said, it was Democratic leaders who insisted the "contingency funds" be included in the state’s budget.

"The governor has no problem getting rid of it. She has favored projects being vetted and prioritized through the agency of jurisdiction," Cooper said.

Amann scoffed at Cooper’s remarks, saying it was Rell who insisted on the funds. Another top Democrat, who requested anonymity, said Rell is playing politics with her response, because she controls $2.8 billion in bonding. The official said if Rell were to kill the "contingency funds," she would control every dollar that is spent, and currently Williams and Amann can prioritize only $4 million.

"I’m not going to listen to silly rhetoric. The governor is not going to give up contingency dollars," said Amann, who is considering a run for governor in 2010. "The governor should focus on helping people. These contingency dollars help these community groups."

Amann questioned whether Rell would be willing to increase the state budget to help offset eliminating the contingency dollars, as she has been drastically scaling back funds to non-profits.

"We think it’s important that legislative leaders have the ability to address constituent needs as needs arise and help with some of these valuable projects," said Williams’ spokesman, Derek Slap. "The senators and representatives are the ones on the ground and are very tuned into the needs of the community."

OPM Undersecretary for Legislative Affairs Jeffrey R. Beckham said an entity interested in the money provides a letter indicating a request for funding. OPM has a form that agencies must fill out and comply with to receive funding, Beckham said. Upon receipt of the completed form and the compliance with all requested material, funds may be disbursed.

Amann’s contingency list

Amann produced an itemized accounting of how his contingency funds will be spent this year. Midway through the fiscal year, he has allocated about half of the $2 million he controls. More than half of the 23 items were Milford-specific projects, ranging from $150,000 to three local Catholic schools for building repairs, to $20,000 to ensure Platt Technical High School fields a football program, to $10,000 to bankroll the Village of Devon Day, a small annual community event held in the Devon section of Milford.

Milford agencies to receive funds included the Milford chapter of the American Red Cross, $25,000; Milford Junior Achievement, $50,000; Milford Fine Arts Council, $50,000; Jonathan Law High baseball field, $20,000; and Milford Kids Count, $10,000.

Other city groups that received funds are the Milford Board of Education, $35,000; Milford International Little League baseball field upgrades, $20,000, and the city of Milford, $30,000 for renovations to the Cpl. Pierson Memorial Park, and $30,000 for handicapped-accessibility improvements to the VFW hall in Devon.

Amann’s contingency dollars also benefited Hartford basketball programs, $90,000; Kidney disease education, $100,000; organ donation, $100,000; the Nutmeg State Games, $50,000, and $100,000 to promote a Bridgeport after-school program called ABCD.

Other beneficiaries of Amann’s funds include $15,000 for The Retired Musicians Fund, a New Haven based group that helps musicians and artists who are struggling with substance abuse problems; $25,000 for the Jewish Federation; and $25,000 and for the New Vision Ministries in Bridgeport.

Cooper said Rell has not allocated her $2 million as of yet. Last year, she spent the money on a dairy farm initiative, and to fund the State Contracting Standards Board, which is designed to reform the contracting process after allegations of corruption surfaced.

Slap said Williams also has not spent any of the money this year, but he produced a partial list of last year’s items. According to documents he supplied, Williams allocated $50,000 for Milford projects including $24,000 for handicapped-accessibility at the Milford/Orange YMCA, and $13,500 for mobile technology for police.

Other items funded by Williams included the Killingworth Public Library, $15,000; Hamden Fire Department, $10,000; Norwalk Senior Center, $5,000; Putnam Food Bank, $10,000, and the South End Community Center in Bridgeport, $4,500.

is it right or wrong?

Amann justified the contingency funds, saying he’s getting "peanuts" compared to past years when leaders received more than $5 million annually. Amann said he receives more requests for the funds than he can satisfy, and his priority is to help out programs in his community.

He defended the process, saying there is a "ton of paperwork," and the state Office of Policy and Management must sign off on distributing the money. He also defended that a majority of the causes to receive his funds are in Milford.

"I’m proud of what we’ve done for Milford. What, is the speaker not supposed to bring home money to his hometown?" Amann said.

"I represent Milford. It’s my first priority," added Amann. "I have no apologies for trying to help the Red Cross and Kids Count."

Amann’s predecessor as House speaker, Democrat Moira Lyons of Stamford, said in her early years as speaker there were no contingency dollars because the state was running a $1 billion deficit and it would not be appropriate to have "discretionary spending." Toward the end of her tenure she said she had limited contingency funds.

Lyons, who served as speaker from 1999-2004, said the fund seem appropriate now because the state budget is at a surplus. She said the money is a recognition for the prominent positions of the leaders.

"You can’t just say ‘Oh, here’s $25,000,’" Lyons said. "You have to back it up."

But one Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, blasted the contingency dollars.

"There are no public hearings, and no review process," said the lawmaker. "You don’t have to show a state interest to get the money. There is no control, no rhyme or reason on a lot of these things."

"If you’re not in good favor with your leadership, you won’t get any money," the lawmaker added.

Some beneficiaries of the contingency funds say they had to complete detailed forms to OPM to get the money, and that they are subject to an audit, while others simply said the state will review financial forms to examine whether the funds were spent appropriately.

Kniep said her organization is concerned the lawmakers could give out the funds to organizations and then receive financial donations for political campaigns.

"This is outrageously bad," said Kniep. "This is unbeknownst to the public."

Amann’s staff said in 2006 he did not fund-raise and limited funds on hand were donated to charitable organizations and the Milford Democratic Town Committee.

Assistant Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he has no problem with the use of contingency funds, because they are often smaller projects that are not worthy of bonding. He also said a public hearing is not necessary because it can take too long to get the money into the hands of the organizations.

Cooper said Rell believes there are enough safeguards in place to ensure the money is properly spent.

Slap said how each of the contingency dollars is spent is a matter of public record, and having public hearings on how to spend a $10,000 grant could slow down the process so much that there would be "paralysis."

Kniep said the argument that $6 million is tantamount to "little drops in the bucket," and does not make sense.

"These little drops add up to make us the second-highest property tax state in the country," Kniep said.

thanks for the money

Those who receive the funds are appreciative.

"We’re in a position where the speaker is from Milford. We don’t expect the world but at the same time we’re already short-changed and don’t get our fair share (from Hartford)," said Milford Mayor James L. Richetelli Jr., a Republican. "This makes it a little fairer."

"Speaker Amann has worked hard to get to this position. We’re very fortunate to be the recipient of these funds," Richetelli added.

ABCD of Bridgeport Assistant Director William Bevacqua said the $100,000 grant from Amann will help his community service organization expand its "Total Learning" program. The program, which works in conjunction with the Bridgeport school system, aims to eliminate the achievement gap by paying teachers to stay later to help students perform better in reading.

The program is in 16 kindergartens and will expand next year because of Amann’s grant to 16 first-grade classrooms and two second-grade classrooms, serving 673 students.

"Jim’s funds helped us expand the program and ultimately we want to see it in every school in Bridgeport," Bevacqua said.

Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut Executive Director Robert Fishman said Amann’s $25,000 will assist programs for the frail and elderly, and Russian seniors around the state.

"It’s very important because federal funds have been cut back," Fishman said of the grant.

Fishman said he was told by Amann’s office that he was getting the money before he submitted any paperwork to OPM.

Kids Count Executive Director Peggy Kelly said she is "grateful" to Amann for the $10,000, which is a fifth of her total budget. Kids Count provides pre-school scholarships to parents who cannot afford such payments, and the agency provides professional development opportunities for the staff.

"Without the $10,000, we could not be as generous to the community and help as many people as we could," Kelly said.

Milford Red Cross board of directors President Barbara Lisman said the $25,000 earmarked by Amann is integral to the agency’s operations. She said it specifically helps pay to hire people to transport the elderly or disabled to doctor’s appointments in Milford.

Lisman noted that it’s ironic that Amann is assisting her organization, as it was Amann who in 1999 waged a spirited but unsuccessful mayoral campaign against her husband, former Republican Mayor Fred Lisman, who died in 2005.

"Jimmy’s a local boy who grew up and lives here. Jimmy and his wife (Terri) both suffered severe medical crises and are sensitive to the needs of the Milford people," Lisman said.

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