The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
AG’s watchdog duties should be expanded
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong believes his office could save the state a lot of coin while stopping corruption, so he’s seeking an expansion of his office’s reach.
Who wouldn’t want to make it harder for fraud to be committed with Connecticut’s taxpayer dollars?
It’s not as though the state has the cleanest reputation when it comes to such abuse. Mention the name of former Gov. John Rowland and that tiresome nickname “Corrupticut” rises from the ashes of two decades ago.
Sadly, such malfeasance never went away. Former state Rep. Michael DiMassa resigned over charges of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds intended for West Haven. Connecticut’s school construction program is under fire in a funding scandal. Then there’s the troubled State Pier project in New London.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong believes his office could save the state a lot of coin while stopping corruption, so he’s seeking an expansion of his office’s reach. Currently, his powers to investigate fraud stop with state contracts for health and human services. Even those powers were only introduced in the aftermath of the Rowland fiasco.
“People are always surprised to learn that I don’t have the same authority, the state doesn’t have the same powers they federal government has, or that our neighboring states — New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Vermont — they all have strong, robust false claims laws that enable the state acting through its attorney general to take action to prevent waste, fraud and abuse of public dollars,” Tong said earlier this week.
It is surprising that it’s taken this long for Connecticut to try to align the AG office’s powers with those of its peers. Who could possibly oppose such oversight?
It is not surprising that blowback is coming from the construction industry. Connecticut Construction Industries Association President Don Shubert says such a move would be overreach and encourage false claims of abuse.
“There often is no clear meaning of ‘true’ or ‘false’ on a construction project,” Shubert said.
That meaning should not be defined only from the inside. With expanded reach, the AG could be proactive about investigating if constructions firms are following wage laws. It’s not that the state ignores such issues, but these probes fall to the Connecticut Department of Labor’s Wage and Workplace Standards division, which reports a lag time of up to six months due to staffing limitations. Imagine not being paid a full check, blowing the whistle and and waiting six months to find out of anyone even heard it.
Opposition isn’t only coming from the construction industry. The Connecticut Business & Industry Association has also spoken up. Labor unions, of course, are in Tong’s corner.
Concerns need to be raised, and addressed. False claims are a different brand of abuse. But resisting investigations into fraud will raise its own red flags. Tong has been a robust voice in taking on Purdue Pharma, resulting in millions of dollars dedicated to opioid treatment and prevention being awarded to the state.
Given that neighboring states have such watchdog powers, Connecticut should not be left vulnerable. Most Connecticut residents may not know of the AG’s limitations, but those who abuse the law have a habit of exploiting such loopholes.