Hartford's Internal Audit Commission is a powerful entity, with the authority by charter to "examine into all matters relating to the integrity, efficiency and efficacy of the government of the city."
The commission didn't flex this muscle much until earlier this year, when Bruce Rubenstein was appointed to the three-member panel. Mr. Rubenstein, a lawyer in private practice in Hartford, pushed city auditors to investigate many of the city's fiscal operations.
The auditors uncovered a cornucopia of faulty fiscal policies and controls at city hall, such as poor control of lease agreements and rental properties, inadequate control of city-issued credit cards, bounced checks to the city that weren't pursued for payment, overpayments to some employees and inadequate supervision of the city's two municipal golf courses.
City officials appear to have taken a two-pronged approach to these revelations. One is to address them — two department heads have been fired — and the other is to get rid of Mr. Rubenstein.
In letters on Sept. 24 and Oct. 2 to city officials, Deputy Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden says that because Mr. Rubenstein represents clients who are suing the city, he is in violation of a rule that prohibits a commission member from having any financial interest "in any work or business of the city." Thus, says Mr. Van Norden, Mr. Rubenstein's appointment is void.
And since a second member of the commission resigned in June and has yet to be replaced, the commission "lacks the legal capacity to convene and conduct city business."
Mr. Rubenstein said that when he received the appointment, he understood his representation of clients might create the appearance of conflict, so he would recuse himself from any commission action involving the corporation counsel's office and submit his cases to mediation.
Mr. Van Norden's letters, coming as more audits are due out, raise a number of questions. Does Mr. Rubenstein have a financial interest that would bar him from serving on the commission? Who makes that decision? The corporation counsel is usually a legal adviser, but here Mr. Van Norden seems to be the judge. The audit commission is supposed to be independent of city hall pressure. City council president Shawn T. Wooden, also a lawyer, said he is studying these questions to determine how to proceed.
In the meantime, Mayor Pedro Segarra should know that this looks bad. It looks petty and vengeful. Mr. Rubenstein and the auditors have helped make the city more efficient. Why not thank them?