Watch the Money
Connecticut will soon be getting a billion dollars in federal stimulus funds to help make our infrastructure safe. But as the money is spread around, will the process keep us safe from veteran insiders who know how to game the system?
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None of these proposals, however, managed to win approval during the General Assembly’s fractious regular session, which wrapped up June 3. Whether any of them will be revived as part of a compromise budget plan was an open question as summer began.
Connecticut has already approved various reforms to curb contract abuse. Those include prohibitions on state workers accepting contractors’ gifts, bans on contractor and lobbyist political contributions, revoking pensions for state officials convicted of corruption and plans to overhaul the contracting regulatory process.
Rell declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a statement issued through her spokesman, she said the reforms already enacted “have provided unprecedented protections in the contracting process” and that “Connecticut now has the most comprehensive and transparent laws in the country.”
Other officials, from Democrats like Blumenthal to Republicans like state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, insist far more must be done, especially when the state is hemorrhaging money and scrambling for every penny. “It’s never acceptable to waste the government’s money, but when you’re facing huge deficits, it’s an even worse sin,” McKinney says.
“There were insufficient safeguards then,” Blumenthal says of the period a decade ago, “and there are equally insufficient safeguards now.” He cites the Earth Technology story as a prime example of what’s wrong.
Frank Ruocco, 42, is a Cheshire resident who founded his environmental cleanup business in 1994 with a single truck and a backhoe. Former employees describe him as intense, intelligent, manipulative and aggressive, the kind of boss who doesn’t like socializing with people who work for him and doesn’t mind getting in the face of anyone who crosses him. He grew up in West Haven, works out regularly, enjoys expensive automobiles and playing golf. He drives his own modified stock cars at regional NASCAR races at tracks like Stafford Motor Speedway and finishes first on a regular basis. He’s a big hockey fan who once donated a youth skating rink to the town of North Haven, Earth Technology’s home base.
According to court records, he also has a temper. Ruocco and his insurance company paid $150,000 to settle a 1997 road-rage incident in which he allegedly broke a man’s leg. A decade later, Ruocco and a youth hockey official fought outside the North Haven rink following a match. Ruocco reportedly pulled the other man’s jacket up over his head, hockey-style, and left him bloody and on the ground. Both men ended up paying $50 fines for disturbing the peace. A civil suit in the case is now pending in New Haven Superior Court, with a jury trial scheduled for November.
According to some accounts, Ruocco helped finance the start-up of Earth Technology by selling a beloved classic Corvette. It took him only a few years to build the company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, largely on the basis of state contracts. By 2003, however, federal and state investigators were looking into Ruocco’s companies. It was a time when, according to Rell, corruption had become ingrained in Connecticut government. Contractors and lobbyists commonly bought gifts and did favors for state officials who supervised state work or influenced contract awards at Connecticut’s transportation, environmental protection and public works departments. In just such a manner, according to state investigators and former Earth Technology employees, Benedict Yorke Jr. got his wall.
Yorke was a veteran supervisor in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s oil-and-chemical-spill unit, which assigned millions in cleanup work to Ruocco’s companies. In 1997, Ruocco’s workers built a 200-foot retaining wall behind Yorke’s West Haven home. Ruocco, who calls Yorke “an old friend,” said he was paid $26,000 for the work.
But Blumenthal’s investigators estimated the wall job was worth at least twice that. They also confirmed that Ruocco’s companies had done tens of thousands of dollars in landscaping work at the Southington home of another DEP inspector, Erik Gothberg. There were further reports of Earth Technology working at the homes of other DEP and state Department of Transportation officials and consultants. Blumenthal alleges there had been what he calls “sweetheart deals” and “blatant violations” of the state ethics code.