Retiring watchdog Robert Ward lauded for 31 years serving CT

Robert Ward speaking on the House floor.

House Republican Caucus

Robert Ward speaking on the House floor.

When state Auditor Robert M. Ward wrapped up work Friday, he ended a 31-year career in public service.

And to those who know Ward well — on both sides of the political aisle — the betting was that Saturday was the first time Ward wasn’t focused instinctively on the job at hand. Sometimes, such as during the corruption probe that drove Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office in 2004, the job Ward faced wasn’t easy.

“There wasn’t a day Bob didn’t think about the best interests of the state,” said former House Speaker Thomas Ritter, D-Hartford, who served in House leadership with Ward during the mid-1990s.

“He is what we need more of,” said former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who entered state service the same day as Ward 31 years ago. “Bob is a gentleman who respects your opinion … who remembers we’re there to do the right thing for the state of Connecticut. That was one of his greatest gifts. He made us all think.”

With his retirement this past week, Ward, who turns 64 on Election Day and has been one of the two state auditors since January 2011, capped a three-decade career in state service that began with 22 years in the House of Representatives — including 12 years as minority leader — and four years as motor vehicles commissioner.

“A couple of years ago I finally decided I would be happy being unemployed,” Ward said last week during an interview in his Capitol office.

The North Branford attorney said he and his wife, Anita, a retired high school librarian, are looking forward to some travel and to spending time with the six grandchildren — and a seventh due this winter.

But those who know Ward say it’s hard to imagine him in a role that doesn’t involve safeguarding Connecticut’s interests.

Rell, who was a freshman state legislator along with Ward in January 1985, admitted she was a little skeptical when Ward informed her of his retirement plans earlier this year.

“I told him, ‘Trust me, Bob, retirement is pretty nice,’” she said. “‘So are you really going to retire this time?’”

The state income tax and a capital program for UConn

Ward never lacked for major issues to tackle.

In the mid-1980s state government spending increased dramatically as Connecticut bolstered education aid to cities and towns, including a new initiative to increase municipal teacher pay.

Ward, seated at left, strategizes during a House session.

House Republican Caucus

Ward, seated at left, strategizes during a House session with, left to right, caucus spokesman Pat O’Neill, former caucus Chief of Staff Andrew Norton, and former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield.

A fiscal conservative, Ward said the robust economy of the ‘80s, and the heavy spending it prompted, taught him that “having too much money” was a real problem for state government.

“In flush times you spend all of that money,” he said.

Ward, who served all but his first two years in the House in the minority, would oppose the state income tax enacted in 1991. And while he stopped short of saying Connecticut could have avoided the controversial levy indefinitely, he still says more frugal spending in the decade before it was enacted could have gone a long way toward at least forestalling its arrival.

And since then, “I think the income tax has in some ways allowed some greater spending” than was necessary, he said. “There is no question that if fully funding long-term liabilities was a priority, the state would be in a better position today.”

Despite his disagreement with majority Democrats on many fiscal issues, he was recalled fondly by his counterparts in leadership across the aisle.

At a time when politics both in Washington, D.C., and state capitals nationwide increasingly is marked by partisan gridlock, Ward is seen as a throwback.

Stamford Democrat Moira K. Lyons, Connecticut’s first woman speaker of the House, said she first worked closely with Ward during the mid-1990s when she was majority leader.

Lyons said Ward helped avert a budget crisis in the waning hours of one session in the mid-1990s.

In those days it was more common to vote on the two segments of the budget — spending and revenue — in separate bills.

A revenue plan, that included tax increases, already had passed the House and Senate, largely with Democratic votes.

Rank-and-file Democrats, irked by GOP opposition to that half, now were questioning whether to approve the necessary spending for the upcoming fiscal year.

Ritter tasked her with solving the problem at 10 p.m. — two hours before the legislature’s constitutionally mandated midnight adjournment.

“The end solution,” Lyons said, “was one little line in the (spending bill) that said it will be deemed if you have voted for this, you will have voted positively for the tax package.”

Ward during a House debate

House Republican Caucus

A young Rep. Ward during a House debate

Ward convinced his fellow Republicans to accept this line and the spending bill passed with bipartisan support.

“It’s full credit to Bob Ward,” Lyons said. “He was someone who wanted to solve difficult issues. He wasn’t there to be political. He wanted to make a difference.”

Ritter credited Ward in 1995 with helping ensure passage of UConn 2000, the capital building program that has transformed the main and satellite campuses of the University of Connecticut over the past two decades.

Rowland in 1995 had become Connecticut’s first Republican governor in two decades. And while Democrats remained in control of the House, the GOP seized a narrow margin in the Senate they would hold for one term.

Ritter said he brought the UConn 2000 proposal to Ward confident that together they could build a bipartisan coalition.

“It was actually pretty awkward for him,” Ritter said. “Bob had to be very strategic.”

Rowland’s impeachment inquiry

Ward had to partner with Democratic legislators on a much stickier issue eight years later. The 2004 House would form an impeachment inquiry to investigate the bid-rigging and kickback scandal that would lead Rowland to resign in June of that year, and ultimately would result in the governor’s serving 10 months in federal prison.

“It was an unpleasant time,” said Ward, who said it was crucial that the legislature — and the state — get solid, unbiased information involving the allegations against Rowland. “It was not something I like doing. I just thought it was about getting the facts.”

Ward also said that “the smartest thing I did that whole year was asking Art O’Neill to chair the (impeachment inquiry) committee.”

O’Neill, a veteran representative from Southbury who served as the Republican co-chair on the bipartisan inquiry panel, said that Republican legislators felt pressure from the administration — but never from Ward — to shield Rowland.

“Bob Ward was steady and calm … and not about trying to politicize the process,” O’Neill said. “He did not let it get to him.”

Ward at the House podium with Moira Lyons at left

House Republican Caucus

Ward at the House podium with former House Speaker Moira K. Lyons

The current House minority leader, Themis Klarides of Derby, joined the chamber just as Ward’s time there was winding down, but still looks to his example when needing to build consensus. “We can all forget sometimes, but these are all people who want to do their best for the state of Connecticut,” she said.

Dealing with the DMV

Ward left the legislature after 2006 and served four years in the Rell administration as commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles — a post generally recognized in all administrations as one of the more joyless jobs in state government.

The DMV historically has been overwhelmed by heavy workloads and limited technology. Still, Ward said, “I thought we made some positive improvements there.”

Under his leadership, the DMV worked with legislators to craft the graduated series of limitations placed on new driver’s license-holders.

“That law changed things,” he said. “It reduces fatalities.”

The department also overhauled its method of processing license suspensions involving cases of driving while intoxicated.

But Ward would spend the majority of his post-legislative career in state government serving as one of the two auditors of public accounts.

Elevating the profile of the auditors’ office

Ward and New Britain Democrat John Geragosian, also a former representative, would begin at the same time in January 2011, after the retirement of Auditors Robert Jaekle and Kevin Johnston.

During their nearly six-year tenure together, Ward and Geragosian would issue a number of high-profile reports describing:

  • Day-care centers which did not follow up on possible criminal violations of applicants.
  • Costly separation agreements at the University of Connecticut and a questionable financing deal for the UConn Health Center’s ambulatory care facility.A failure to safeguard millions of dollars in disability benefits in the pension program for state employees.
  • A failure to safeguard millions of dollars in disability benefits in the pension program for state employees.
  • As failure to look for beneficiaries of the pension program for municipal school teachers.

Ward quickly gave the credit to the auditors’ staff.

State Auditor Robert Ward file photo

Robert Ward in the state auditors’ office

“Everyone in this agency wants to do the right thing, every day they come into work,” he said. “I’ve told people we have an important mission here, and they all bought into that.”

The auditors now file all of their reports electronically, a convenience Ward believes has increased the attention the reports receive from legislators.

But Ward also said he takes pride in his office’s ability to resolve issues in low-key fashion. State agencies, working with his staff, many times identify potential problems early. “Sometimes they see things and — though it gets no media attention — they just go along and fix it,” he said.

Geragosian said another important change he and Ward initiated was to enroll their office in a national state auditors’ peer review program.

Connecticut’s received the highest of three possible grades in its last peer review, conducted in 2015.

“I think Bob and I both appreciate each other’s perspectives and different viewpoints,” Geragosian said. “Bob Ward has always been somebody who isn’t looking to blow things up. He knows there are different approaches and he just wants to solve the problem.”