Friday, October 16, 2009

More from the Corruption State, Connecticut:

Rell Defends Prof's Public, Private Roles On Study, Poll

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Gov. M. Jodi Rell said Thursday that she sees nothing wrong with a UConn professor suggesting questions for a private, political poll for her campaign committee last spring during the same period in which the professor was performing an ongoing taxpayer-funded, $223,000 study for her administration on government efficiency.

Rell told reporters during an appearance at a flu clinic at an Old Saybrook that she had not known that UConn professor Kenneth Dautrich was examining the private poll done for Rell's exploratory campaign committee at the time he now acknowledges that he did. She said she learned about it "when I read it in the paper'' last week.

"I knew that he had the input on what kinds of questions we want to send to the pollster,'' Rell said, referring to a New Jersey firm that Dautrich, a polling expert has used in the past on other projects.

"I expected he just sent that as is to the pollster - you know, these are the rough questions we want to ask,'' Rell said.

Asked if she saw a problem with possible conflict between political and taxpayer interests, Rell said, "As long as he was doing it on his own time, I don't think there's any question whatsover that he's allowed to do that - on his private time and not part of any study.''

It was the first time that Rell faced reporters' questions in person in six days -- a period during which the University of Connecticut released an e-mail from Jan. 21 of this year that contradicted a public statement that the governor made last week.

Rell had told reporters last Friday that her office in 2008 rejected the idea of doing a publicly funded poll as part of the now-controversial $223,000 study by Dautrich. Although Dautrich proposed a politically-edged poll in a June 8 e-mail to Rell chief of staff M. Lisa Moody, Rell had said "we never agreed to that -- never said we wanted to do a poll. In fact, [we] said we're not going to do a poll."

But four days later, on Tuesday, UConn released a document in response to a freedom of information request that directly contradicted Rell's claim by saying that a poll was still be considered in January 2009 at the request of Rell's office. The document was an e-mail between two University of Connecticut officials, saying that "one of our faculty members has been approached by the Governor's office to conduct a statewide survey of 500 Connecticut adults to gather their views of the state budget situation and opinions about how the problem should be solved.

"The project would begin shortly (as soon as you approve it). ... In addition to the faculty member (Ken Dautrich), a couple of our current Master of Survey Research students would be hired to work on the project."

In that e-mail, Amy Donahue, who heads the UConn Department of Public Policy, where Dautrich works, told Jeremy Teitelbaum, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, that the poll would be paid from state funds.

The poll was never done.

A spokesman for the Republican governor's office, Rich Harris, sought to explain the apparent contradiction with a prepared statement later Tuesday, saying: "The idea of doing a poll was rejected early in the process by the governor's office and the simple fact is that no polling using state dollars ever occurred -- period. Our response is not changing because the timeline and the truth of the matter have not changed."

"I do not know why the idea was still being discussed at UConn in January," Harris said, "because it certainly was not being discussed at the request of anyone in the governor's office."

On Thursday, Rell reiterated that message with reporters.

"I knew of no new polling, no request for polling,'' Rell said. "I don't know why UConn was still talking about it in January, but it was not at my request or my office's request.''

When it was pointed out to Rell that Moody had written an e-mail two days before the UConn e-mail and had said that she planned to talk with Dautrich about "polling'' around that time, Rell repeated a statement she made last week that Moody was talking about a recent "focus group'' in Dautrich's study. She said she had checked with Moody on this since the issue arose Tuesday, and Moody had told her "there was no requested polling.''

The contradictory statements further complicated a political and legal situation that has already prompted two official investigations -- one by UConn, to see if an ethics policy was violated, and the other a joint probe by state auditors and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to see if taxpayer funds were misused for political purposes.

In addition, Democratic political activist Jonathan Pelto filed a complaint Tuesday with the State Elections Enforcement Commission, seeking an investigation based on his claims that Rell and her exploratory campaign committee for the 2010 election violated state election laws.

When Rell addressed the issue for the first time with reporters Friday at an appearance in Torrington, she was already facing criticism over disclosures that Dautrich's study had involved a Dec. 16, 2008, "focus group" in Wethersfield that, among other subjects, compared public attitudes about the leadership ability of both Rell and Blumenthal. Blumenthal was then considered a potential 2010 election opponent of Rell's, although he since has taken himself out of the race. Rell has not declared whether she will seek re-election next year.

In Torrington, Rell said that Dautrich's June 2008 proposal for a poll "had ... been dismissed" and ultimately the decision was made in December 2008 to do the "focus group" on state budget issues and other matters.

Rell said no poll was under consideration after that -- even though an e-mail had surfaced from Jan. 19, 2009, in which Moody, the chief of staff, said she was planning to talk to Dautrich about subjects including "polling [on] budget messages, specific cuts, etc." Rell explained Moody's use of the term Friday by saying there was an "interchange" in references to polling and the focus group. "Polling was the focus group," the governor said.

Although Rell and her lieutenants have said no poll was ever done as part of the study, Moody initially responded positively to Dautrich's June 2008 suggestion to do one, writing, "I agree -- got some money" in an e-mail.

Dautrich and Rell denied last week that the study had been misused for political purposes.

Among the issues in Pelto's complaint, filed Tuesday with the elections agency, is one involving a private poll done last spring by Rell's exploratory campaign committee for 2010. Dautrich has acknowledged looking over the questions and results before and after it was performed by a New Jersey firm that he has used in his own past polling research. Pelto said that Dautrich's actions amounted to an illegal "in-kind," or non-cash, campaign contribution to Rell. Dautrich has said his discussion of the partisan poll -- with someone he will not identify -- was unrelated to his state study.

Rell had said last Friday that she would put her exploratory campaign treasurer in touch with state elections enforcement officials to make sure there was no problem and that Dautrich's involvement in the private poll did not constitute an in-kind contribution. On Thursday, she said, "We have touched base'' with elections officials to get an opinion and "set up a meeting.''

She added: "We'll follow up with that whenever that takes place.''

Asked what information and documents she would be willing to provide to elections officials, she responded, "Whatever they ask for.''

Rell was asked about a request Tuesday by Democratic state chairwoman Nancy DiNardo for all documents involving the Dautrich study. DiNardo, at a press conference on Wednesday, said she wants the materials to understand what happened and questioned how "truthful'' Rell has been. Rell responded: "I'm not going to comment on anything Nancy DiNardo says. I know what kind of person I am. I know what kind of life I lead. I know how I deal publicly and privately, and I am not going to let comments by the Democratic state party woman have any influence on me whatsoever.''


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