The hiring of a PR-firm by hedge fund giant Ray Dalio’s philanthropic arm to speak for Connecticut’s public-private education partnership — a move that left out the partnership’s board — sparked new complaints Friday about a venture already under fire over a lack of transparency.
The president of the Partnership for Connecticut, Erik Clemons, insisted that Global Strategy Group and its managing director Roy Occhiogrosso, neither spoke for — nor had been hired by — the collaborative, whose job is to invest at least $200 million of public and private money in under-performing schools.
But four hours later — after House Republican leaders bristled at reports Global was speaking on behalf of the partnership — Clemons said the Occhiogrosso would be allowed to continue coordinating media access to the quasi-public entity until the collaborative hires its first CEO.
The controversy over Global Strategy Group was playing out Friday as a legislative panel considered a bill to revoke special privacy rules, including an exemption from the state’s Freedom of Information law, for the partnership. These conditions were granted by legislators last June at the request of Dalio and his wife, Barbara, whose philanthropic track record in Connecticut schools is considerable.
“Is this [partnership] just a shell corporation for the Dalio Foundation to operate?” said Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, who was the first legislator to object to the partnership’s exemption from Connecticut’s Freedom of Information statutes and its ethics code. “These lines are blurred.”
“Is this just a shell corporation for the Dalio Foundation to operate? These lines are blurred.”
Deputy House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora
“I’m very concerned that there is too much co-mingling of the Dalio Foundation and the Dalio family and this partnership. That’s part of the problem of not being subject to FOI laws, you don’t know what’s going on at what time,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, another opponent of the privacy arrangement.
Klarides, one of five elected officials named by the legislature to serve on the partnership Board of Directors, said she was surprised to hear of Global’s involvement in partnership matters.
“I was never notified,” Klarides said. “I knew nothing about the fact that there was a new spokesperson.”
The Dalios, who announced last April they were prepared to make an unprecedented gift to Connecticut — $100 million spread out over five years — to assist struggling schools, had retained the McDowell Communications Group of Hartford to assist with public relations.
McDowell Communications notified the CT Mirror on Feb. 21 that media relations for the partnership would be handled by Global, effective immediately.
Earlier this week, Occhiogrosso, a well-known political operative who served as a senior policy advisor to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, provided the Mirror with a statement on the partnership’s position on state budgeting rules involving the collaborative.
Both Occhiogrosso and McDowell Communications declined to comment Friday.
Clemons said there likely was some miscommunication about Global’s role, but added he is allowing the firm to assist the partnership for now because of its familiarity with the Dalio’s past work in education.
Dalio Philanthropies already has funded various student support initiatives in recent years in East Hartford, Meriden, New Haven and Hartford, earning high praise from both state and local officials.
But Clemons also noted the partnership board, which began meeting in October, hopes to hire its first chief operating officer in the next few weeks. From there, the board and the CEO will decide upon a communications strategy.
“The partnership is the partnership and Dalio Philanthropies is Dalio Philanthropies and there is a clear delineation between the two.”
Spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont
Gov. Ned Lamont, who joined the Dalios in proposing the partnership last April, has supported their request for exemption from disclosure and ethics rules.
Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss, said Friday the administration is not worried that lines have been blurred.
“The partnership is the partnership and Dalio Philanthropies is Dalio Philanthropies and there is a clear delineation between the two,” Reiss said.
The governor’s spokesman also said the partnership “is a unique opportunity for the state of Connecticut” and the state’s goal is not only to match the Dalio’s $100 million investment, but to work with them to raise a third $100 million from other private donors to support low-performing schools.
As far as who speaks for the partnership, Reiss said “you want to hear from the people who are in charge of those organizations and I think that’s what you’re going to hear.”
Clemons and the president of Connecticut’s second-largest teachers union, Jan Hochadel of AFT-CT, both testified Friday against the bill to subject the partnership to state disclosure and ethics rules.
Advocates of this privacy arrangement say Connecticut’s schools cannot be fixed without tackling many sensitive issues, and these talks are more likely to be productive behind closed doors.
Hochadel said she fears some school districts may be wary of sharing the challenges their students face if they fear that information will be made public.
“I think there’s unintended consequences with changing this,” she said. “We want to protect those students and their families.”
Opponents of the privacy arrangement note legislators routinely hold open hearings and meetings on sensitive matters including mental illness, drug addiction, child and domestic abuse and poverty.
They also note existing Freedom of Information statutes allow public agencies to redact and withhold personal information in many sensitive areas. For example, no agency would be required to disclose psychological or other health records of an individual student.