Representatives of the University of Connecticut Foundation made an impassioned argument at a legislative hearing Thursday that any law forcing them to open their records to the public — even if donors’ name are excluded — would impede their efforts to raise money.
And it seemed from the response of the legislators on the higher-education committee that most — though not all — agreed with that argument.
Daniel Toscano, a member of the foundation board and a donor, said the legislation under consideration, which would make the foundation subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, “will most definitely have a chilling effect on the philanthropy that is essential to building and maintaining a top-notch flagship university.
“As someone who has given significantly to UConn for more than a decade, I can attest to the fact that treating the foundation like a state agency will deter people like me from giving. Even if that is not your intention, I can assure you that it will be perceived very negatively by the very people you want and need to support this great institution.”
The foundation, the private, nonprofit fundraising arm for the university, drew widespread criticism for controversial expenditures last year, including $251,250 paid to Hillary Clinton for a lecture in April and its agreement to contribute $300,000 toward a 20 percent increase in UConn President Susan Herbst’s compensation.
Several bills were introduced this year that would require transparency of expenditures by all higher-education foundations and make them subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Under Connecticut state law as it is now, the UConn Foundation and other foundations at other state universities and colleges are exempt from the FOIA.
“The model is working and it’s working well. The foundation is building momentum,” Newton said. “Changing the rules now would be a serious mistake.”
Newton said that if the foundation’s records become public, donors may fear that the state will rely on foundation funds to supplant state funding, rather than letting the foundation supplement funding.
Roberta Willis D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the committee, disagreed with UConn’s argument, holding that the foundation meets the definition of a “functional equivalent of a public agency” and should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
“When I asked them, ‘could you please respond to this,’ they did not,” Willis said after testimony was heard on the bill.
Willis said she doesn’t want names of donors to be subject to FOIA, but foundation officials say even if donors names are protected, treating the foundation like a public agency under FOIA would be chilling for donors.
Willis called that response “a good scare tactic.”
Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, also spoke out in favor of making the foundation subject to the FOIA and of making donors names public, with the possibility of allowing some donors who feel strongly to be anonymous.
“I’ll entertain the discussion of anonymous donors, but don’t tell me it’s an anonymous donor if you are putting their name on the building,” McLachlan said after the hearing.
James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, and Mary Schwind, of the state Freedom of Information Commission, both spoke in favor of greater transparency for the foundation.
“The public deserves detailed information so it can judge whether the foundation has invested well, allocated resources wisely and fairly; and transacted business prudently, efficiently and without impropriety,” Smith said. “Just as we prefer that political donations not be secret, we prefer that donations to the foundation not to be secret.”
Schwind, who is the associate general counsel for the FOI Commission, submitted testimony that said, “We believe that public confidence in higher education foundations cannot be fully achieved if the foundations continue to be shielded from public scrutiny by their exclusion from the definition of public agency and the provisions of the FOI Act.”
The commission suggested an opt-out provision for donors who wish to be anonymous.