Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Media, Malloy And The Consolidation Of State Agencies

The very title of the story in CTMirror was ominous: “Howls as Malloy tries to shorten leash on watchdogs.”

And in the lede paragraph, a dark joweled Richard Nixon is resurrected from his bed of infamy: “Governor Dannel Malloy is attempting the most dramatic makeover of the state's watchdog agencies since their creation as post-Watergate reforms in the 1970s.”

Watergate redivivus!

The media knows how to raise the roof when its much vaunted independence is threatened. And somewhere in the background a corrupt ex-felon is rolling around in the muck: “But critics wonder why Malloy, a Democrat, is inviting a political backlash with his second move on the watchdogs, whose independence the General Assembly defended when a Republican governor, John G. Rowland, tried to weaken them a decade ago.”

Rowland too? This is serious.

The three putatively “independent” agencies Mr. Malloy is attempting to consolidate under a brand new agency, the Office of Government Accountability or OGA, are the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC), the Office of State Ethics (OSE), and the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC)

In his new budget, Mr. Malloy has called for the elimination of a Corrupticut era provision that shielded the three watchdog agencies from budget cuts by compelling the governor to transmit his unrevised budget requests to the watchdog solicitous General Assembly.

Once the provision is eliminated, critics suppose the governor’s office will be able to control the three agencies' purse strings, thus bringing them to heel whenever the FOIC orders an administrative agency to release to the media public data that might bring a blush to the cheek of some Malloy factotum, or the SEEC uncovers political thuggery in one or another of the state’s urban one-party corruption pots, or the OSE finds that this or that agency is in violation of some inscrutable ethical rule as ambiguous as the Oracle at Delphi.

The OSE recently destroyed a quarter-century's worth of public records detailing the finances of present and former public officials because, said executive director Carol Carson, the agency prior to her arrival had “suffered through well-publicized internal problems” and its records were in disarray. In fact, the operations of the agency were also in disarray. On at least one occasion, the OSE disposed of a case when it lacked a proper quorum to adjudicate, an oversight compliant courts are almost certain to wink at.

Under the old dispensation, the investigative and legal staffs of the oversight agencies are superintended by agency heads answerable to independent citizen commissions that adjudicate elections, ethics and Freedom of Information complaints. Under the Malloy regime, the executive director of the new Office of Government Accountability, appointed by the governor, would be vested with the authority to assign and/or discipline lawyers whose duties might include the investigation of the governor. That reorganization would pretty much turn supposed independent agencies into the governor’s liege lords, subject always to executive whimsy.

Soon after Victims Advocate Michelle Cruz pointed to failings in an Earned Risk Reduction Credits program fashioned by undersecretary for criminal justice policy Michael Lawlor – one of the violent criminals given credits under Mr. Lawlor’s program celebrated his early release by murdering a store clerk in Meriden – her job was posted and she was quickly replaced by a Cook County, Illinois political operative.

This is not a governor who lies down quietly under the lash of media criticism. And critics of his “independent” agency consolidations abound. President of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information James Smith quickly jumped into the flames.

"These proposals, said Mr. Smith, “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?"

Vice President of Common Cause Karen Flynn was flummoxed. “It's perplexing," said she. "His recommendations save no money, but they take away the independence of the watchdogs," a chord strummed also by House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero: “There's (sic) only two reasons in my opinion. One is you are trying to save money. That's clearly not the case. The other is control and power. It has to be the latter."

Since Mr. Cafero has recently expressed interest in running for governor, it will be easy for Malloyalist operatives to dismiss his ruminations as political posturing, even when they are reasonable.

As the independence of the three watchdog agencies are drawn within the orbit of powerful politicians, the real losers will be the crowd of petitioners, not always news agencies, gathered near the foot of the throne begging a more powerful and compromised government for simple justice.
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