Connecticut’s best investigative journalism so far this year was probably the Jan. 2 report by the Connecticut Mirror’s Andrew Brown and Kasturi Pananjady about the lovely little racket state government has been running with its unclaimed property program. The program, the Mirror reported, collected $2.3 billion in the public’s lost assets over the last 20 years but had returned to its rightful owners only 37% of the money, in large part because the program, as operated by state Treasurer Shawn Wooden, wasn’t looking very hard for the owners.
Indeed, the treasurer was doing more to advertise himself — inducing a government contractor to place him in television commercials for the state’s college savings program — than he was doing to advertise the unclaimed property. The Mirror reported that unclaimed property items worth $50 or less, totaling more than $40 million, weren’t even being included on the internet list maintained by the treasurer. So the Mirror itself created a complete list and posted it.
The Mirror also reported that much of the money confiscated by the treasurer’s office was diverted to state government’s program of public financing for political campaigns, like the treasurer’s own. No wonder Wooden and state legislators saw no urgency in fixing the program.
Wooden hid when the Mirror reporters were investigating his malfeasance. Instead he assigned assistants to make his excuses. Among other things, Wooden’s aides said state law actually prohibited the treasurer from advertising the unclaimed properties worth $50 or less.
And when the Mirror’s story was published around the state and cited in this column, the treasurer again hid, instead assigning aides to write rebuttals calling the Mirror report and this column’s commentary a bunch of lies.
It turns out that the lies were Wooden’s own. Last week the treasurer came out in public at last to announce improvements to the unclaimed property program. Now the smaller properties will be included in the treasurer’s internet list, because state law really does not prohibit their listing, as Wooden’s aides originally said.
Additionally, claims for return of lost property no longer will have to be notarized, and claims for payment of less than $2,500 will be expedited.
Of course this doesn’t mean that Wooden won’t still exploit his office by having the state contractor advertise him in the college savings program’s TV commercials. This being an election year, maybe Wooden will have his office put him in commercials for the unclaimed property program too.
The treasurer isn’t the only high official in Connecticut recently caught taking personal advantage of his office.
Last week it was reported that U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-5th District, has been using her campaign fund to employ her son and daughter, her son getting more than $15,000 and her daughter more than $21,000 over the last three years.
The payments have been reported and legal, and Hayes isn’t the first member of Congress to do something like this. Nevertheless in Hayes’ case it looks like nepotism and it probably is, since it’s unlikely that the talents of her children are so extraordinary that no one could replace them in her campaign. Hiring one child would be questionable; hiring two is exploitation.
This is not the example that might be expected of a former national teacher of the year. While it’s not a matter of national security, it suggests that Hayes quickly has gotten too comfortable as a member of the political establishment.
Meanwhile Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr. is being investigated for hiring, as an executive assistant at salary of about $100,000, the daughter of the deputy state budget director, Kostantinos Diamantis, while the chief state’s attorney was seeking budget office approval of raises for state prosecutors.
There was no search for other applicants for the executive assistant’s position, and the woman seems to have had no special qualifications for the job other than her father’s supervision over the raises Colangelo sought. Diamantis was fired when the scandal broke.
In response to the scandal, Governor Lamont says he wants his high appointees to undergo an ethics training seminar, though the Wooden, Hayes, and Colangelo cases might already constitute an ethics seminar in themselves.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut