Connecticut’s search for a new ethics watchdog
The day Carol Carson arrived in Connecticut to become the state’s chief ethics regulator, she learned that her agency no longer had the legal means to investigate public officials — a disconcerting state of affairs, even if temporary. That was in December 2007.
On Thursday, the Citizens’ Ethics Advisory Board created an executive search committee to oversee the selection of Carson’s successor as executive director of the Office of State Ethics, an agency that was new and struggling to find its way when Carson was hired.
Carson, 64, who is retiring on Aug. 1, is credited with returning stability and credibility to the role of ethics watchdog, enforcing the ethics code for state officials and overseeing the multi-million-dollar lobbying industry at the Capitol. Since her job was posted on June 6, the board has received 60 applications. The deadline for applying is Monday.
“Let’s be clear about something: There is no replacing Carol Carson,” said Dena Castricone, the board’s chair.
The State Ethics Commission was dismantled in 2005 amid bitter staff fights that cost the executive director his job the previous year. The successor agency, the Office of State Ethics, was paralyzed in its early years by a director who resigned, criticized as ineffective.
“There were so many things going on,” Carson said.
There was the matter of the lapse in the regulatory authority of the agency to do its job.
Emergency regulations allowing the new agency to operate had expired as she arrived, and the legislature initially refused to approve a permanent regulatory structure. It was on her first or second day that Carson introduced herself to the legislature’s Regulations Review Committee.
Carson was hired from Boston, where she had been an investigator and then an executive at the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission.
“The agency when I came was still an agency that was getting ready to do something,” Carson said. “I wasn’t totally surprised by that, but there was a lot — there was staffing, there was I.T., there was the really basic, basic level of organizing things.”
While Carson restored stability to the office, her tenure has not been without challenges to the independence and resources of ethics regulators and two other major watchdog agencies, the State Elections Enforcement Commission and the Freedom of Information Commission.
“We get funding when there is a scandal. As soon as we do a good job, we see less resources. We’re kind of like fire departments in that way. If they are doing their job well and educating people about safety, everybody is saying, ‘These guys are just sitting around the firehouse.’ And they’re not.”
Carol Carson, Executive Director
Office of State Ethics
During the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, they were reorganized under the umbrella of the Office of Government Accountability, whose director publicly asserted she considered herself answerable to the governor.
The watchdogs are once again autonomous, though not immune from budget pressures.
“I think that watchdog agencies need three things to be effective. They need independence. They need enforcement authority. And they need adequate resources,” Carson said. “To my successor, I would advise making sure you do the best job you can to maintain all three of those things.”
The Office of State Ethics had 21 positions when she arrived.
It now has 14.
Asked if those resources are adequate, she does not hesitate to answer: “No, they are not. We may not have ended in deficit this year, but we are on the cusp.”
Castricone said the agency is a watchdog, but one that is intent on helping officials avoid problems with guidance and advice. Under Carson, she said, the office has struck an appropriate balance of guidance and enforcement.
“In terms of the balance, I think most people in state government are like you and I. We wake up, go to work and try to do the best job we can,” Carson said. “So we provide them guidance, advice and education.”
But it also investigates and pursues significant fines against state employees who misuse their public positions or lobbyists who violate the state ethics code.
In March, the ethics board fined a lobbying firm $10,000 for billing the Connecticut Technical High School System for work it did for a private client. The same month, the board fined a UConn official $20,000 for using her position to land a $50,000 fellowship for her husband.
“There will be people that are trying to game the system, but most people aren’t like that,” Carson said. “Those people who are like that, who are willing to step over the line in violation of the code, our job is to fairly and vigorously enforce the law.”
One tension in her business is that the more success the Office of State Ethics has keeping people from trouble, the less apparent is its reason for existing.
“We’re a scandal-driven business. We get funding when there is a scandal,” she said. “As soon as we do a good job, we see less resources. We’re kind of like fire departments in that way. If they are doing their job well and educating people about safety, everybody is saying, ‘These guys are just sitting around the firehouse.’
“And they’re not.”
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