The state Attorney General’s office is planning to take the unusual step of going to court to remove a labor union as the distributor of a fund designed to help Sandy Hook shooting first responders and teachers.
The Attorney General will file what is known as an equitable deviation complaint, which will not change the intent of the fund, known as the Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Program (SHWAP), but only which entity would oversee it, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton.
It will seek court approval to remove administration of the fund from the John J. Driscoll United Labor Agency — a non-profit organization that offers support services to residents, founded by the Connecticut AFL-CIO in 1978 — and transfer it to The Newtown-Sandy Hook Foundation to oversee the dispersal of the remaining $104,000 in the fund.
“After a careful review by the OAG, it became apparent the ULA was not the appropriate entity to maintain and administer the Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Program,” Benton told the CT Mirror.
“The Attorney General’s Office has a statutory duty to ensure that charitable funds are held properly and the charitable intent is carried out and to take appropriate action when it is determined that charitable funds are not being properly handled,” she said.
Newtown-Sandy Hook Foundation Executive Director Lucie A. Connell said her board is aware of the Attorney General’s plan but is waiting for more information.
She said the foundation to this point hasn’t served many first responders and has instead focused mostly on mental health assistance for the victims’ families, children who survived the shooting that day, and school staff.
The foundation was created after the victims’ families criticized the United Way of Danbury, which raised more than $12.5 million after the massacre.
At first, the United Way wasn’t going to give any money directly to the victims’ families but changed its approach after many of the families publicly criticized them.
It eventually distributed $7.7 million to the families, and officials said the rest would be used for long-term mental health costs.
The Attorney General’s decision to go to court comes after a report by the State Auditors showed that the union couldn’t account for the $104,000 because it had been commingled with other accounts.
The money was eventually transferred back, but the fund has been stagnant for several years.
The SHWAP was initially created by the state legislature, using more than $200,000 in seed money donated by private corporations.
It was initially run by the state Office of Victim Services and was intended to help first responders and teachers cover any costs for missing work to get mental health treatment following the massacre.
The state oversaw the fund until mid-2016. A total of $388,396 was donated to it, and about $272,000 was distributed to 34 people during that time frame, according to a final report prepared by OVS Executive Director Linda Cimino.
But the legislative act establishing the fund was supposed to expire in August 2015, so Cimino met with Newtown officials and teachers about how to distribute the $115,000 remaining in the fund at that time. It took several months to coordinate and eventually transfer the fund.
In a 2019 letter summarizing the fund’s history, the Attorney General’s then-Chief Counsel Nicole Lake wrote that Cimino believed that teachers, in particular, still felt they needed significant mental health resources three years after the massacre.
“The reality of the emerging long-term mental health effects of this tragedy on teachers specifically, it appears, were not being recognized,” Lake wrote.
“Teachers were inquiring about support unsure that they could continue in the teaching profession. Ms. Cimino reports the teachers used the terms ‘fragmented,’ ‘anxious’ and ‘paralyzed’ to describe how they were feeling.”
Lake’s letter was sent to state Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, who had raised questions about the fund after a state trooper contacted him about not being able to get any financial help through the fund for mental health care after responding to a bomb threat at the new Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Bolinsky said he has been asking for several years that the SHWAP money be transferred to the Newtown-Sandy Hook Foundation and away from the union.
“When the legislature established that fund it was for a specific purpose, and all I ever wanted was a proper accounting of the money and where it went,” Bolinsky said. “All I’ve wanted is the money to go to the Newtown Foundation, because they know who needs it and will get it to the people who the legislature wanted it to go to.”
The Office of Victim Services initially wanted to turn about $87,000 over to the ULA “exclusively to ensure that unionized and non-unionized school personnel” had access to services.
The remaining money, about $29,000, was to go to the Newtown Police Union for the same purpose.
But the police union, after initially saying it would take the funding, ultimately declined to accept the funding, and all of it was turned over to the United Labor Agency, which because of its affiliation with the AFL-CIO was well-known by teachers.
Between 2016 and 2019, the ULA distributed $6,323 of the funds to five eligible recipients and charged $5,791 against the funds to cover related administrative costs, according to the State Auditors.
“Based on these distributions, ULA was supposed to have $103,713 on hand for future SHWAP distributions. However, ULA did not have these funds available,” the auditors concluded.