Auditors: New agency needed to handle whistleblower complaints

Despite a record-setting budget deficit, the state should consider creating a new agency to resolve a growing backlog of employee complaints of corruption, mismanagement, waste and unsafe behavior, Connecticut’s retiring state auditors proposed Monday.

Robert G. Jaekle and Kevin P. Johnston also used their final annual report to recommend closing a loophole in the state pension system and tighter restrictions on when state government can waive competitive bidding.

“The statutory requirement that our office review all whistleblower complaints filed with our agency affords our agency no flexibility in deciding which complaints are worthy of spending limited state resources to review and investigate,” wrote Jaekle and Johnston, who traditionally do not comment beyond their written reports.

The state’s fiscal and programmatic watchdogs have long complained that they lack the resources to handle growing numbers of confidential allegations about improper state government operations. One of the smallest agencies within the Legislative Branch, the auditors’ office has 117 staffers and a $13.4 million operating budget.

The auditors’ office, which traces its origins back to the colonial charter of 1652, primarily is responsible for auditing state agencies, quasi-public entities and government programs, and for preparing the statewide single audit report, a comprehensive analysis of state finances including federal assistance. A total of 63 audits with 456 recommendations were issued in 2010.

But since the whistleblower statutes were enacted in the late 1970s, the auditors have had primary responsibility for processing those complaints, though certain criminal matters also are reviewed to the Attorney General’s office.

The legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee reported one year ago that the number of complaints filed annually under this system more than doubled, from 70 to 151, while the auditors’ office routinely processed about 80.

The office received 94 complaints over the past year, including 11 involving allegations of retaliation against past whistleblowers. More than 200 cases still are pending, including more than 29 that have been pending for two years of more.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis projects a $3.67 billion deficit is built into the next state budget, an amount equal to nearly one-fifth of current spending, and Jaekle and Johnston wrote that a new agency to process whistleblower complaints “may not be feasible given the state’s current fiscal situation.”

They also suggest in their annual report that the legislature could give the next auditors the flexibility to transfer complaints to “another unit of state government” to speed up the review, but it doesn’t recommend any specific agency.

“I think we need a better solution than the one we have now,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. But she added that the largest deficit in state history undoubtedly would limit lawmakers’ options.

“How high people are willing to prioritize this remains to be seen, but I don’t think anyone wants to create a new agency at this point,” she said.

State employee union spokesman Matt O’Connor said workers aren’t convinced the only solution to the new backlog is a new state agency when additional resources for the auditors’ and attorney general’s offices could solve the problem.

“We all understand that the auditors are backlogged,” O’Connor said, adding that what the report does show is “the lack of focus on accountability, transparency and real ethics throughout state government” and particularly with outgoing Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration.

Union leaders have bumped heads with the Rell administration and the legislature over the past two years for eliminating nearly all funding for the State Contracting Standards Board, a watchdog agency created three years ago to monitor major contract awards to private companies.

Slossberg said that the state budget funds a number of watchdog and clean government programs spread across several agencies, and could consider reorganizing various entities to devote more resources to the whistleblower backlog.

Slossberg didn’t recommend any specific agencies during an interview Monday.

Other recommendations in the annual report included:

  • Closing a loophole in what is commonly referred to as the “double-dipping” provision within the state pension system. Current law allows pension recipients to be rehired at full salary within state government without any pension reduction, but for no more than 120 days in a calendar year. But the auditors noted that restriction doesn’t apply to pension recipients hired at state-funded, private institutions, such as the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, the American School for the Deaf and the Connecticut Institute for the Blind.
  • Limiting the conditions under which state agencies can waive competitive bidding rules. Most service contracts and other purchases costing more than $20,000 are supposed to be subject to competitive bidding, though the Executive Branch can waive this under several conditions, including whenever it determines “special capabilities or experience” are needed. The auditors called this an “often-used” and “overly broad condition that could conceivably be argued to exist for any personal services agreement” and suggested that it be eliminated.

Jaekle and Johnston, who will retire on Friday, have served as Connecticut’s Republican and Democratic state auditors, respectively, since 1993. State legislative leaders announced last week that former state House Minority Leader Robert Ward, a North Branford Republican, and New Britain Democrat John Geragosian, an eight-term representative and outgoing co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, have been chosen to replace them.