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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Ruocco’s company is doing cleanup work for the state under yet another contract, one that designates it as one of four companies that respond to state agency calls for emergency cleanups. State records show it has received more than $1.9 million since the contract was awarded in 2005. This agreement is tainted as well; Ruocco’s role is under investigation because of a whistleblower complaint, according to Robert G. Jaekle, one of Connecticut’s auditors of public accounts.
No DEP or DOT official has ever been fired or disciplined as a result of the questions involving Ruocco’s companies. One reason often cited by state officials is that no criminal charges have ever been filed against state employees in those cases.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office recently confirmed that the federal investigation involving Earth Technology “is still an open matter.” But he declined to discuss why the probe has gone on so long without charges being filed.
Jeffrey Meyer, a former assistant U.S. attorney for Connecticut now teaching law at Quinnipiac University, says it’s not unusual for such cases to “go on the back burner” as investigators or prosecutors are shifted around. “Some cases get bogged down because other cases come along that are fresher, with more promise of immediately bearing fruit if there is a quick employment of resources,” he says.
Meyer says most federal white-collar crimes have a five-year statute of limitations, but that targets of investigations sometimes agree to waivers in hopes of deflecting immediate prosecution. Blumenthal says his office even suspended its own investigations for about three years at the request of federal officials, “so the criminal investigation could be done as effectively as possible.”
At some point in this summer’s extended legislative season, the General Assembly may approve Blumenthal’s long-sought legislation to make it possible for the state to seek restitution and big civil damages against contractors found to be corrupt. Proposals to give state prosecutors subpoena powers similar to those used by federal corruption investigators are also being pushed once again.
But an unusual coalition of contractors and liberals have frustrated similar reform efforts in the past, according to state Rep. Michael Lawlor (D-East Haven), co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Critics of the reforms say they worry about the potential political abuse of such strong investigative powers.
Some officials predict that the federal government will force all states to enact strict accounting and oversight programs to ensure the federal stimulus money won’t be frittered away. Others insist states like Connecticut need their own protections.
“There is a huge potential that these billions of federal dollars will be squandered and wasted,” Blumenthal says, “and that these Earth Technology Inc. issues will be a model in microcosm for much larger failings.”
“Things are moving really fast with this stimulus money,” warns Jaekle, whose office acts as the state’s accounting watchdog. “A lot of the money is going to be coming in before the accountability and transparency systems are in place. That creates an atmosphere where there is more potential for problems—and more opportunities for waste.”