State's 'Essential' Workforce Exceeded 14,500 During Sandy

Three short items this week: How many essential vs. non-essential state employees were working, or not, during Hurricane Sandy; an ethics fine is announced Friday against a state legislator, three days after he's re-elected; and a Fifth Amendment claim by executives at Hartford's regional anti-poverty agency is rejected by a judge.

Essential, Non-Essential

The biggest storms prompt the governor to order all "non-essential" state employees to stay home and "essential" ones to report to work. And on Oct. 29 and 30, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy issued that directive during Hurricane Sandy, more than 14,500 of the executive branch's 34,846 employees reported for duty, while 20,000 or so non-essential workers stayed home.

That's according to figures released to The Courant last Thursday by the state Department of Administrative Services. The stats don't include the legislative or judicial branches. All told, there are about 45,000 full-time state employees in all three branches.

The fact sheet released by DAS puts a number to each of the terms — "essential" and "non-essential" — that are mentioned each time a storm immobilizes Connecticut. And the perhaps-surprising fact that upwards of 14,500 state employees are deemed essential, even during a weather emergency, gives an idea of the scale of the government's statewide operations.

Beyond whatever informational value the numbers have, they don't have much financial significance to taxpayers: The non-essential employees who stay home generally get paid anyway, said Jeffrey R. Beckham, staff counsel and director of communications for the DAS.

"I am confident that the payroll won't be less" for the two days that Sandy kept 20,000 state employees home, Beckham said Friday, adding: "It's conceivable that [the biweekly payroll figure of about $164 million] might be more."

That's because of possible additional compensation, including overtime pay. Contracts with different state employee bargaining units may vary on such issues, he said. For example, the state's higher-education agency said that it gives hour-for-hour compensatory time, to be taken later, to essential workers who report for duty during storms.

So who are the essential workers who come in during storms? Obviously, emergency personnel such as state police are always on duty, no matter what — but DAS also gave examples of some non-police agencies that had significant staffing during the storm, on Oct. 30:

The state Department of Correction, which maintains around-the-clock staffing at the state's 15 prisons, had 4,300 workers on duty; the Department of Developmental Services had 2,100 people working at 24-hour-a-day facilities serving people with mental retardation, including Southbury Training School, five regional centers and 68 group homes; the Department of Transportation had 1,650, mostly maintenance personnel spread throughout the state to drive trucks and operate equipment to keep roads open, but also scores of employees at supply facilities and at Bradley International Airport.

And, of course, the state's computers have to keep running — so DAS had 125 people working, mostly in its information technology division, the Bureau of Enterprise Systems and Technology (BEST).

Legislator Fined $500

The Office of State Ethics announced Friday that it has collected a $500 fine from Democratic state Rep. Terry Backer of Stratford for violating an ethics prohibition against a public official making "an appearance" before a state agency in behalf of his employer.

Backer is executive director of the nonprofit Soundkeeper Inc., whose operations include pumping out the sewage tanks of boats on Long Island Sound free of charge, to prevent the dumping of pollution into the water.

Soundkeeper has several boats that do the pumping, and the organization is reimbursed with federal money for a portion of its expenses. That federal money is passed through the state's environmental agency, now called the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP.

"[F]rom 2006 to 2009, Rep. Backer signed certain routine forms that were submitted to the DEEP on behalf of Soundkeeper, Inc. for reimbursements of costs that Soundkeeper, Inc. had incurred, thereby constituting an appearance before the DEEP," the ethics agency said in a statement.

Backer signed a "stipulation and consent order" on Friday — settling the case three days after he won re-election to an 11th term.

The settlement document includes "Rep. Backer's statement that he was unaware that that his execution of documents on behalf of Soundkeeper, Inc. constituted 'appearing' before the DEEP, and was unaware that such conduct was a violation of the Code of Ethics," the ethics agency said.

"Elected officials and state employees may not act on behalf of any third parties before certain state agencies in order to eliminate the appearance or the actuality that they are using their influence to benefit themselves, a private employer or a client," said the ethics office's executive director, Carol Carson.

5th Amendment Claim

In an ongoing story covered in this column, a Superior Court judge last week rejected an effort by the Hartford region's anti-poverty agency, the Community Renewal Team, to invoke the Fifth Amendment, the U.S. Constitution's protection against self-incrimination, and thereby delay the progress of a civil lawsuit that's been filed against it until after an ongoing criminal grand jury investigation of its operations is completed.

The judge's decision on a preliminary motion means CRT will not be able to put off indefinitely having to respond to demands by its former chief operating officer, Trish Donovan, for information to pursue her claim for damages under the civil "discovery" process. Donovan, who is suing based on the claim that she was forced out of her job illegally early this year, is expected to demand sworn testimony by CRT executives

"The defendants' motion for a broad protective order staying all discovery in this matter until 'questions of criminal liability currently being investigated by a federal grand jury are resolved' is denied," Judge David M. Sheridan wrote in last Tuesday's decision. "The defendants will be obligated to respond to any discovery requests that do not involve considerations of self-incrimination, and make a specific claim of the Fifth Amendment privilege as to the rest."

"I am happy with the court's ruling and anxious to move forward with discovery, including depositions of Mr. [Fernando] Betancourt" — who is the chairman of the Community Renewal Team's governing board — "and Ms. [Lena] Rodriguez," who is the non-profit anti-poverty agency's CEO, said Donovan's attorney, Richard E. Hayber of Hartford.

The CRT's lawyer, Dove A. E. Burns, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The office of U.S. Attorney David B. Fein, the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut, has been investigating the Community Renewal Team since February. Fein's office issued a subpoena for agency records soon after a Feb. 12 Government Watch column was published. The column said Paul Puzzo, CEO of the anti-poverty agency until 2005, had been receiving at least $85,000 a year as the agency's vice president — but he rarely appeared at the office and spent significant time at a waterfront condominium unit that he and his wife own in Florida.

Also under investigation is a complaint by one or more present or former Community Renewal Team employees concerning a state-funded program called "Home Solutions," which until it ended in 2010 provided repairs to the homes and septic systems of people who met low-income standards. One of the employees' claims is that federal funds earmarked specifically for other programs were improperly diverted to the Home Solutions program — allegedly when Home Solutions started faltering and its grant funds were not being distributed, and Community Renewal Team administrators were afraid they wouldn't receive more state funds to continue it.

Community Renewal Team administrators have denied any improprieties.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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