Sen. McLachlan Pushes for UConn Foundation Transparency (Hartford Courant)

May 20, 2015

Hartford Courant

The state Senate rejected an amendment Tuesday that called for increased transparency of the University of Connecticut Foundation by making it subject to the state’s freedom of information law.

The foundation has prevailed each time in recent years in the General Assembly, and it prevailed once again Tuesday on a 24 to 12 vote in the 36-member Senate.

The issue marks one of the longrunning battles in higher education in the state as lawmakers have clashed on the matter at least since 2005.

Two UConn foundation FOI bills died in two different committee this year, but Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven vowed that the measure would come back again in the form of an amendment on the Senate floor. That happened Tuesday with an amendment on another education bill.

“Unequivocally, they asserted their right to say that’s our business, not yours. I beg to differ,” Fasano said on the Senate floor. “We own that symbol: the Husky. … We own it because this legislature invested in it.”
He added, “Donors, I could argue, should not be disclosed. … However, where the money goes, how it gets dispersed is definitely an issue.”

Fasano said the foundation should be open to public scrutiny because $8 million in state money is provided to the foundation on an annual basis.

“You’re a state institution. You’re there because of us. And you can’t tell us what you do with the money from the foundation?” Fasano asked on the Senate floor. “Why are we paying them $8 million to begin with? That’s our money. … Who the heck would ever make an investment … and you don’t have to tell us what you’re doing with it? What’s wrong with the sunlight? Is there something you don’t want us to know?”

But Sen. Steve Cassano, a Manchester Democrat who co-chaired a committee that oversaw the issue, opposed the bill after saying that all sides should get together and craft a law together.

“This is something that should be thought out and talked out,” Cassano said.

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, a Meriden Democrat who co-chairs the higher education committee, said lawmakers can ask for any reports at any time from the university. She said donors “don’t want their donations to supplant public funding” by the state every year.

Deputy Senate Republican leader Kevin Witkos of Canton said the amendment was necessary because of a series of high-profile expenses by the foundation, including purchasing a home in Hartford’s West End that is used for various fundraising events.

“The university has proven … that they are not subject to freedom of information,” Witkos said on the Senate floor.

He added that there were “house renovations when the former president was living there and renting another house.”

The amendment called for a report by the foundation that would contain a copy of the foundation’s most recent annual report, a copy of the foundation’s 990 federal tax form, and information on any conflicts of interest.

Witkos also said that if UConn’s endowment reaches $1 billion, then it should no longer receive money from the state. The foundation now has about $365 million in the endowment fund.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican who has pushed for foundation transparency, said, “Many are perplexed in this state by parts of government that are not brightly under the sunlight, and I’m not really understanding why it operates that way. … There may be an argument about exempting donor information. I’m not sure about that. … Certainly, the big donor’s name is hanging on the side of the building at the University of Connecticut. … The reason for the disclosure of donor information” is to reveal potential conflicts of information.

Under the current law, political campaigns must disclose their donors, and universities around the country also disclose their donors, McLachlan said.

“What I do question is their inability and unwillingess to comply with freedom of information,” McLachlan said of UConn.