Connecticut’s Higher Education Nepotism Provision Legalizes Government Corruption

By Mitchell W. Pearlman

Government corruption is a way of life in many countries. It’s illegal in those countries to take money for granting favors or breaking rules. Nevertheless, from low level bureaucrats to presidents and prime ministers, “Baksheesh” is commonly accepted as a cultural norm, or at least a fact of daily life.

In the United States, government corruption is also illegal. Indeed, both federal and state governments have enacted ethics and conflicts of interest laws. But here’s the difference between the United States and many other countries: in the United States we often legalize what would otherwise be illicit conduct. Legalized bribery in the form of campaign contributions to elected officials in order to gain favors is a case in point.

Another example has recently come to light right here in Connecticut. The state has laws prohibiting nepotism in government employment. Nepotism is giving employment to relatives. In this instance, UConn gave permission to its head football coach to hire his son as an assistant coach – reportedly at a salary of $95,000. The State Ethics Commission found that UConn and the coach violated the state’s anti-nepotism laws by hiring the coach’s son as a member of the coach’s staff. UConn then appealed that decision to the Superior Court.

Then a bomb shell was dropped by UConn’s lawyer in court papers. She noted to the surprise of the Ethics Commission (and virtually everyone else) that a newly enacted law now provides that a state employee who works at a state college or university and a member of that employee’s immediate family may be employed in the same department or division of that college or university. The only condition is that the school determine internally – that is, without independent oversight – that procedures have been followed to ensure that “final” financial decisions affecting both state employees are made by a non-family member state employee.

Of course the head coach, who has direct supervision of all his assistants, will be critical in the decision-making process of hiring, retaining and recommending the salaries of all his assistant coaches, even if the athletic director ultimately signs off on those decisions. In other words, in this case UConn better give final approval of the coach’s son’s employment contract if the school wants to keep its head coach. Furthermore, under union contracts with public colleges and universities, the specific performance evaluations underlying UConn’s “final” decision in this and similar matters may be kept from the public as personnel records.

As Carol Carson, the executive director of the Office of State Ethics, put it, this “creates a very broad get ‘out of jail free card’ for people within the higher education system.”

There was no public notice that this nepotism provision was being offered and there was no hearing or opportunity for the public to comment on the proposal. The Speaker of Connecticut’s House of Representatives merely slipped the provision into a totally unrelated bill – ironically one dealing with public access to state data. Most legislators probably had no clue that this measure was even included in the bill they voted on. In light of the new statutory loophole, a Superior Court judge overturned the decision by the Office of State Ethics.

By sneaking through this particular provision in the last chaotic days of the legislative session, the Speaker was able to legalize a classic case of nepotism. But nepotism in government, by its very nature, is unfair, unethical and corrupt even when made legal. And what does the legalization of corruption say about our government, especially when it takes the governments of other countries to task for their failure to control corruption?

Mitchell W. Pearlman serves as secretary of CFOG’s Board of Directors.