2:14 PM EDT, April 13, 2013
Commissioner Joette Katz of the state Department of Children and Families said last week that she's sorry she parked her personal BMW sports car in her reserved space in a state parking garage during the winter months – and she criticized the state official who blew the whistle on her.
In addition, a DCF spokesman acknowledged Friday — in response to Courant questions about the issue made public last week by columnist Kevin Rennie — that Katz hasn't been keeping proper mileage logs for the state vehicle assigned to her, a Ford Escape SUV. Records show she drives it an average of 1,800 miles a month. She's also been parking the state vehicle overnight in a commuter lot when she shouldn't, said DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt.
"We have immediately instituted" changes to comply with rules, Kleeblatt said.
Katz, who commutes to Hartford from Fairfield, is a retired state Supreme Court justice appointed in 2011 by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to run the massive child-protection agency. Between her current salary of $153,831 and her judicial pension of $120,303, the state pays her $274,134 a year.
Rennie reported last weekend that Katz, one of a relative few state agency commissioners assigned a state vehicle, had left her 2003 BMW convertible in her space in the garage at the state's office building at 505 Hudson St. in Hartford during the winter months. Her state-assigned SUV was parked next to it in the same garage; she was using two spaces.
Katz removed the BMW in mid-March, about a week after a March 11 written complaint by Antionette Alphonse, the human resources director of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, which shares the building and garage. Since then, Katz says she has kept her state vehicle outside in a "visitor" spot in the Hudson Street building's lot, and uses her space in the garage for another car she drives to work many days, a Subaru.
Katz, in an interview Tuesday, said she regretted putting her agency in an unfavorable light.
"I didn't appreciate how this would be perceived," Katz said. "My failure here was to understand [that] somebody looking at this could absolutely say … 'Who does she think she is? I mean, she's a government bureaucrat, and she's sitting here parking her Beemer … in a state facility because, ooh, it's snowing outside and she doesn't want to drive.' And I'm not saying [that is] an unreasonable perception. It's not."
In the same interview, however, Katz also criticized Alphonse, whose duties have included allocating parking spaces in a garage that's short of spaces.
"I can tell you that if this were my HR director – you know, it's not that she shouldn't be able to do what she does, etc. – but, personally I would be thinking, like, 'Don't you have better things to do?'" Katz said.
"I would not be not a happy camper if my HR director went outside" normal channels with actions and statements, Katz said, adding that her secretary told her Alphonse had called a TV station and the NAACP about the situation. Katz said that DCF's "HR people" have shown they can handle serious issues with appropriate action, while keeping her informed – and "they don't just go run amok."
Told Friday of Katz's remarks, Alphonse said: "I was only doing my job. And if she was doing her job, and was concerned for the citizens, she wouldn't be using a public space for private parking."
Alphonse, who is black, acknowledged checking with the NAACP on concerns she had about the situation, but denied calling any TV station.
Alphonse said that the day after she wrote her memo about the BMW, she had a previously scheduled a meeting with DECD Commissioner Catherine Smith about her concerns over an upcoming increase in her responsibilities and workload. She said Smith suggested at the meetinig that Alphonse might consider seeking a new position.
Alphonse said she thought Smith's suggestion may have been connected to her complaint about Katz, even though it was not explicit.
Smith denied that. She said her suggestion was one of several alternatives that she had brought up for Alphonse to consider, and it had nothing to do with Katz. Smith said she can't account for any "implications" that Alphonse may perceive.
'Admitted Her Mistake'
On Friday, in response to a Courant query, the governor's spokesman, Andrew Doba, said that "this administration believes that public service is a privilege, and that every public employee must be held to the same standard. Commissioner Katz has admitted her mistake and corrected the situation. We hope that equal attention is paid to the incredible work she is doing for some of our state's most vulnerable children."
Katz, in the interview, said that she drives about twice a week to Hartford from Fairfield – 55 miles or so, one way – in one of two Subarus that she owns. Other days, she said, she uses her state vehicle. She said she'll often leave it in a state commuter parking lot off the Merritt Parkway in Fairfield, some five miles from her home. Then, she said, she'll drive her Subaru to the commuter lot, park it, and embark in the state car for stops at DCF offices or other locations on the way to Hartford, depending on her schedule.
Katz said she has a two-car garage at home in which the BMW and a Subaru are kept, while the other Subaru is always outside; the BMW wasn't left at the state garage in Hartford for winter storage, she said. Instead, she said, she drove the BMW to work one day late last year – and then the weather got too bad to drive a sports car, her job remained busy, and she felt no pressing motivation to move it.
"Seriously, it's my space, and I don't mean to be arrogant about it – I get a designated space," she said. "I didn't worry about it."
Then came Alphonse's March 11 memo, which Katz said "expedited" her removal of the BMW.
"I got it out [the] next week – because, frankly, I had a second driver with me. My husband and I were up here for a social event," she said. "We brought the keys and we drove it home."
Katz said that she couldn't remember when she left the BMW at the state garage, and that she could only be sure it was "before Christmas."
"The day I drove it in -- I know it was a while ago, I cannot tell you the date definitively, or I would – was the day that I got [a] new state car [assigned to her].. So [then] I have two cars. So … what am I going to do? … I got stuck with the Beemer here because [I can] only drive one car at a time. And living in Fairfield was not easy. It's not like I lived Hartford where I could say to a neighbor or friend 'Do me a favor we're going to run down [and] let me get my car.' So, it sat here."
However, it was pointed out to her that the new state vehicle merely replaced one she already had, and so the number of cars in Hartford did not change for her. A day later, she sent word through Kleeblatt that she'd been mistaken about getting the new state vehicle on the same the day she put the BMW in the state garage.
Katz said she took the car out once while it was in Hartford, but returned it to the garage.
Alphonse insisted Friday that the BMW was in the garage since early September. She said she noticed it a few days before a Sept. 10 meeting that she had with union represenatives for 22 DECD workers, who were losing their parking spaces at 505 Hudson St. and being moved to a lot nearby.
Meanwhile, after The Courant asked questions about Katz's state car use and mileage, Kleeblatt Friday issued a statement saying that her "use of a state vehicle … represents sound business practice. … The department maintains 15 offices and three facilities throughout the state, all of which the commissioner visits regularly and frequently." Also, he said, she "often attends meetings involving sister state agencies, as well as other functions arranged by a wide variety of service providers, civic organizations, educational institutions, etc."
However, Kleeblatt said, in looking into the newspaper's questions, "we became aware that certain record-keeping requirements were not strictly adhered to. A monthly mileage log was maintained but not a daily log as required." He said that "a daily log will be maintained moving forward." Also, he said, DCF's transportation administrator "will now approve occasional overnight at-home parking consistent with state guidelines."
"Similarly, we became aware that parking a state vehicle in a commuter lot, as the commissioner sometimes does, is permitted only in limited circumstances," Kleeblatt said. "Thus, we are looking for a suitable parking alternative for those occasions…."
He said records indicate Katz "is using the state vehicle to attend to business on either the way into or out of" the Hartford office about "70 percent of the total days she works."
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.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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