Republican legislative leaders on Monday protested the recent seizure by the newly created Office of Governmental Accountability of a computer from the state’s elections enforcement agency, saying it confirmed their fears that OGA would interfere with and intimidate key watchdog agencies.
“We are requesting the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee hold a hearing to determine whether the OGA has overreached beyond its authority, jeopardizing the [election agency’s] security … and putting a chilling effect on all watchdog agencies under the administration of the OGA,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, wrote Monday to the legislative committee.
There was no immediate response from the committee.
Last week, Shelby J. Brown, the OGA’s executive administrator, touched off the controversy when she ordered one or more of her staff employees to enter the office of the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC), and confiscate the computer of a former SEEC employee. She said she did it because the computer contained 17 “commercial movies” that didn’t belong there.
The episode revived a controversy over the creation of the OGA in 2011 by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Democrat-controlled legislature. In that consolidation, the new OGA absorbed nine watchdog agencies, including the elections enforcement commission under an administrative structure headed by a gubernatorial appointee.
The GOP argued at the time that the new arrangement wouldn’t realize the savings Malloy claimed, and that it could handcuff agencies like the SEEC, Office of State Ethics and Freedom of Information Commission, whose jobs are to act as independent watchdogs over the governor and his administration.
Malloy and Democrats said all the OGA would do is consolidate operations and provide administrative support for the watchdog agencies. They said even though the watchdogs would become OGA divisions, it would only be for administrative purpose and they would maintain their independence as law enforcers.
Republicans said Monday the current episode proves their misgivings were justified. They said there were no circumstances under which the OGA should go into one of the watchdogs’ offices unannounced and seize property as it did last week.
“This incident has raised questions and concerns about the consolidation of oversight agencies that lost their autonomy under Gov. Malloy,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said in a statement Monday. “The monetary savings were dubious under this consolidation effort; the hamstringing of independent watchdog agencies always troubling.”
Klarides noted that SEEC Director Michael Brandi has said the computer was seized without his knowledge or consent, and that it could contain sensitive information about pending SEEC investigations that may now be jeopardized.
Fasano raised several questions about the incident for the Government Administration and Elections Committee to answer by holding a hearing. He co-wrote Monday’s letter to the committee with Senate Deputy Minority Leader Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury.
State law only “grants the OGA authority to ‘provide personnel, payroll, affirmative action and administrative and business office functions and information technology associated with such functions’ … for the SEEC,” they wrote. “The statute also indicates that the OGA must not do anything to ‘affect or limit the independent decision-making authority’ of various agencies including the SEEC.”
“Thus, the OGA serves merely an administrative support function. It does not have the authority to act for or investigate the SEEC,” they wrote. “The actions of the OGA in this situation include seizing the computer, which lay dormant for 7 months, without notifying SEEC; acting with no immediate threat or justifiable reason for taking the equipment; and holding the computer and information that is the property of SEEC for over two days.”
“The executive administrator of OGA is appointed by the governor and therefore serves and answers to his authority,” they wrote. “It is particularly concerning that an agency which serves at the pleasure of the governor would unilaterally seize property outside of its authority that may contain sensitive information regarding ongoing investigations.”
They asked that the committee answer questions including: how the decision to confiscate the computer was made; who the OGA told about it; who had access to the computer while it was in OGA’s possession from March 3 to 7 (it has since been taken by the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney for safekeeping); and “what the urgency was in seizing the computer without meaningful notice to SEEC officials, considering the fact that the computer was locked in an office, under a desk, unused for the past 7 months.”
Brown, the OGA executive administrator, declined comment on the Republicans’ statements Monday.