Hartford — The head of the state’s higher-education system apologized Wednesday for the hefty raises he unilaterally awarded to top staff, but he immediately was confronted with new questions about six weeks he spent working remotely from a second home in Minnesota over the summer.

Robert A. Kennedy, the president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, said he erred procedurally and politically in awarding 21 raises, including $48,000 for his executive vice president, Michael P. Meotti. All the raises are suspended, and Meotti will be refunding his raise.

Attorney General George Jepsen said he has not been asked for a formal opinion on the propriety of the raises, but he indicated that they probably were inappropriate.

“The statute governing the Board of Regents provides that the ‘board shall fix compensation of its professional and technical personnel.’ If, in fact, the individuals who received raises are considered professional or technical personnel, only the Board of Regents — not its president — could have approved the raises,” Jepsen said in an emailed statement.

A contrite and composed Kennedy answered questions for 26 minutes about his failure to seek board approval for raises that he insisted were justified by added duties taken on by the 21 recipients after a sweeping reorganization.

But Kennedy acknowledged he had no explanation for how he and his staff failed to read the political and public reaction to raises at a time when the salaries of most state employees are frozen, taxes have gone up and the economy remains uncertain.

“That’s really one of the most fundamental questions,” Kennedy said. “The political sensitivity wasn’t there. It should have been there.”

The press conference took place at the board’s central office in Hartford. Kennedy was accompanied by Lewis Robinson Jr., the chairman of the Board of Regents, who was unaware of the raises until they were first reported by The Mirror. Robinson said the economic and political environment should have been considered.

“How does this really look to John Q. Taxpayer? In that respect we will be factoring in how this plays in a state where we have substantial unemployment,” Robinson said.

Meotti did not attend. Asked about his absence, Kennedy replied: “Well, as president, I take responsibility for the decisions and the actions that were taken.”

Six-week hiatus

Kennedy, whose base salary is $340,000, also faced questions about a new subject: His absence from the state and central office for six weeks, while he exercised contract rights that gave him six weeks for “professional development.” But he took no courses or did any academic research or writing. He also used two weeks of his vacation time over the summer, he said.

He said his time in Minnesota, where he and his wife have a home, would be more accurately described as working remotely, not doing professional development.

“That’s the way it’s worded in my contract, so I am sticking with that term. But it really was, probably, working remotely would be another apt description of it,” Kennedy said.

Robinson expressed some surprise at the answer, saying he had assumed the professional development meant academic or professional activity other than simply working remotely.

“When I was presented with the contract, and read the paragraph, that I assumed, as I believe someone else here said, that it would be off-site seminars, perhaps teaching or writing a book or something like that. That was it,” Robinson said.

Robinson said Kennedy’s rights under that paragraph would be examined by the board, but not until after it concluded its review of the salary fiasco and established strong guidelines for how raises can be awarded.

Kennedy’s daily schedule during that time away was not immediately available Wednesday.

Asked for reaction on how that time was used, Robinson said, “Well, I wish I had a similar contract… This contract is something that was agreed with President Kennedy and the governor of our state.”

Kennedy said it was his understanding during his contract negotiations over the summer of 2011, that he would be allowed to use this time to work remotely.

“That’s the way it was developed when the contract was under discussion and under development with the governor’s office,” Kennedy said. “I can’t say that everyone knew it that way.”

Andrew McDonald, the governor’s general counsel, had no comment on how that provision should be interpreted. He said the contract negotiated by the governor’s office was mean to be an interim agreement until the Board of Regents was formed.

Rep. Roberta Willis, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said this news just verifies that more than just compensation needs to be looked at.

“It’s not just the salary, but all the other benefits that come with these jobs,” the Democrat from Salisbury said. “With a major reorganization [of the college system], this is probably not the best time to be 2,000 miles away… This is probably not the best way to manage a major merger.”

The press conference was a “collective decision” that grew out of a meeting Kennedy and Meotti had earlier in the day with McDonald and Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser, Kennedy said.

Gov. Dannell Malloy was highly critical earlier Wednesday of the raises, but he stopped short of saying he no longer had confidence in Kennedy’s leadership of the newly merged system.

“This was badly mishandled, inappropriately handled. It needs to be addressed. I’m happy there’s been an admission that this was wrong. But there’s going to have to be other steps taken,” Malloy said. “This whole thing has to be reviewed. I’m still gathering information. But you can be assured I’m not too happy right now.”

Asked about whether he still enjoys the governor’s confidence, Kennedy replied, “I am hoping that it has not been shaken irrevocably.”

Malloy personally recruited Kennedy, the former president of the University of Maine, to assume leadership of a 100,000-student system merged at Malloy’s insistence. It includes the four campuses of the Connecticut State University system, the dozen community colleges and the online Charter Oak College.

“We gave him a charge. I wanted plans in place that allow students to move from institution to institution and drive up graduation rates,” Malloy said. “That plan is now in place. I wanted $5.5 million in savings by the consolidation. That’s been accomplished, so things have been accomplished, but this is improper.”

Staff writer Keith Phaneuf contributed to this story.

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