State officials let UConn 2000 oversight panel languish for years
Deprived of overdue appointments, the panel tasked with overseeing the University of Connecticut’s capital building program has not met since December 2014, according to records obtained by The Mirror.
Governors and legislative leaders have not made appointments to the UConn 2000 Construction Management Oversight Committee since 2009, despite repeated warnings from the university that some members’ terms had expired.
This disclosure comes two weeks after state auditors reported UConn improperly redirected nearly $50 million in funds earmarked for deferred maintenance, instead spending it to expand and upgrade various facilities. The redirection of deferred maintenance funds was one of the chief allegations raised 11 years ago that led legislators and then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell to establish the oversight committee in law.
And while Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office was uncertain Monday about the need for new appointees — and questioned the recent conclusions of state Auditors John C. Geragosian and Robert M. Ward — several legislative leaders took a different stand, recommending that the committee be reactivated and saying that UConn needs greater oversight now.
The committee ‘has accomplished its goals’
“The Construction Management Oversight Committee believes it has accomplished its statutory goals, and therefore is recommending that the General Assembly eliminate (the) CMOC and assign its remaining functions to the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees,” committee chairman and UConn trustee Thomas Ritter wrote to Malloy and top lawmakers back on Dec. 4, 2014, adding that the recommendation was approved unanimously.
Ritter also indicated that more than half of the seven-member panel — specifically the four members appointed collectively by the governor and legislative leaders — had resigned. This meant the panel no longer had enough members to constitute a quorum.
State officials neither repealed the law creating the oversight committee nor appointed more members.
And in September 2015, the UConn trustees charged some of its own members — its Buildings, Grounds and Environment Committee — with assuming the duties of overseeing management of UConn 2000.
Dating back to 1996, “UConn 2000” is the title for the state’s financing program for capital projects at its flagship university. Over the past two decades, the state has pumped $2.36 billion into the main and satellite campuses.
Geragosian and Ward reported earlier this month that a survey of 20 of the “larger, recent, deferred-maintenance projects” showed that the “primary objective” of 10 projects “was to expand the capacity of, or otherwise upgrade, assets.”
Geragosian and Ward added that “legislative authorization should be sought for projects that do not constitute deferred maintenance.”
The university says that a statute enacted this year, which authorizes UConn “to operate and maintain the components” of UConn 2000 “in a prudent and economical manner,” clearly covers the redirecton of deferred maintenance funding. The auditors disagreed.
Malloy, legislators divided over auditors’ findings
This issue also divided officials at the Capitol on Monday.
Malloy spokesman Chris McClure said that, “If there is new business for the committee, we will look into making any necessary appointments from the governor. But in the meantime, we share UConn’s concern that the auditors have misinterpreted the law with respect to deferred maintenance and expansions — which is an issue for the auditors and UConn to resolve, and not the CMOC.”
But several top lawmakers said Monday that UConn needs oversight from a group that includes more than just members of its own Board of Trustees.
“I think if we’ve learned anything in the past two years, it’s that nobody would say that we have too much oversight of UConn,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said.
The university has been involved in several fiscal controversies during this period.
- The state auditors disclosed this month that UConn had continued to pay an administrator his $203,000 annual salary to work part-time and off-site for a year, and also continued to provide some employees with hefty separation payments.
- UConn President Susan Herbst awarded raises earlier this year — ranging from 20 to 30 percent — to four top administrators. The president said the administrators all had gone several years without pay hikes. As public criticism grew, three of the four administrators later relinquished a portion of their increases.
- And the National Science Foundation terminated seven grants to UConn, worth $4.6 million, in June 2016. This happened as a handful of UConn professors agreed to pay $400,000 to settle claims raised by the foundation that they inappropriately used federal research funds to support a tech company three of the professors owned.
“UConn should not be acting as its own construction funding watchdog,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said. “If public tax dollars are being mismanaged, that needs to be exposed and addressed. Clearly, independent oversight is needed. We should get this committee up and running again.”
“The auditors’ finding that UConn apparently misused funds intended for deferred maintenance is both disturbing and reminiscent of some of the problems that led to the creation of the CMOC in the first place,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, wrote in a joint statement. “This report makes clear that, despite UConn’s protestations to the contrary, the CMOC can still serve a vital oversight role in ensuring that construction funds are spent on what they are meant to be spent on.”
Oversight increased after 2005 mismanagement
UConn first came under fire over its capital program in 2005 amid reports that new dormitories that hadn’t been subjected to fire and other safety code inspections had been opened and were housing roughly 5,000 students.
And investigatory panel appointed by Rell and chaired by former Rep. Jonathan Pelto, D-Mansfield, concluded UConn had improperly shifted tens of millions of dollars from one project to another. That investigation also showed that funds earmarked for deferred maintenance were used for expansions and new construction.
Rell and the legislature responded with several reforms in 2006, including creation of the Construction Management Oversight Committee. It was was comprised of seven members — four appointed jointly by the governor and legislative leaders and three named by the UConn Board of Trustees. UConn also appoints the chairman of the oversight panel.
“The Governor’s Commission on UConn Review and Accountability recommended a strict oversight process for UConn 2000 building funds,” Pelto said Monday. “The legislature put those recommendations into law. … It is beyond shocking that they have returned to their old ways and have been ducking the mandated oversight process.”
Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, who co-chairs the legislature’s Higher Education Committee and who helped craft the 2006 reform legislation, said when the auditors released their report on Sept. 13 that it appeared the university was “sliding back into old habits.”
Willis said that “nobody wants to micro-manage the university, and it shouldn’t be our job. But I think they have a responsibility to inform us” so legislators can make adjustments to UConn 2000 program parameters.
But UConn noted that it began to warn state officials as early as 2009 that they were falling behind in their appointment responsibilities involving the four non-trustees on the oversight committee.
The university released three letters from Ritter — a July 2009 letter to Rell and legislative leaders and April 2013 and February 2014 correspondence to Malloy and top lawmakers. Ritter noted that appointees’ terms had expired and that these members were awaiting further direction from the Capitol.
“UConn has repeatedly requested new appointments so the committee can continue to function,” Richard F. Orr, the university’s vice president and general counsel, said Monday. “In the absence of a functioning committee, UConn has, on its own, continued to perform the committee functions itself. UConn has always welcomed new appointments if that is the pleasure of the governor and legislative leaders.”
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