Rell gets caught in a lie that was sure to fail
Personnel matters, especially in the unlimited liability machine of government, are often conducted with indirection and code. But with the abrupt departure the other day of state Transportation Commission Joseph F. Marie, thereâ€™s no getting around something worse. Marie and Governor Rell and her legal counsel concocted a cover story and then Marie and the governor lied about what had happened.
Marie and Rell werenâ€™t the first and wonâ€™t be the last to lie about an embarrassing personnel matter in government. But they and the governorâ€™s legal counsel should have known better than to think they could get away with this one.
An allegation of â€œinappropriateâ€ behavior by Marie on the job reached the governorâ€™s office. He was hauled before the governorâ€™s legal counsel and told that he could resign immediately and agree in writing that nothing bad would be said about him and that he would say nothing bad about his superiors, or he would be fired on the spot. While denying any misconduct, Marie agreed to resign and never returned to his office to clean out his desk and say goodbye. Whereupon he and the governor still made repeated public statements that everything was normal and that Marieâ€™s leaving immediately, with no transition, had been the commissionerâ€™s own idea.
Everybody who pays attention to state government knew better than to believe this story, and reporters for the state Capitol news bureau CTMirror.org began making inquiries. They quickly obtained enough information to force more truthful statements out of the governorâ€™s office and then out of Marie himself.
The damage done to the governorâ€™s credibility might be severe if her term had more than six months left and if her recent handling of the state budget and the state administration generally had not already signified her abdication. Maybe of greater concern is the damage the Marie incident may do to the idea of due process in state government.
Of course commissioners, being the highest management, serve entirely at the governorâ€™s pleasure, as Rell herself noted after her lie in the Marie matter blew up on her. But due process is not only part of judicial and administrative procedure but also part of basic decency as well. Was Marie denied a chance to defend himself, or bullied out of trying to?
While the former commissioner claims that he was not told anything about the complaint against him and given no chance to rebut it, the governor says some details indeed were provided to him, and Marieâ€™s quick resignation implies knowledge of a certain amount of guilt as much as it implies panic or intimidation. A state agency commissioner presumably is a big boy or girl and this one did not insist on due process, either in the governorâ€™s office or outside in the state Capitol parking lot. Does he really want a hearing with a full airing of the complaint against him now? Thatâ€™s doubtful.
But there are degrees of inappropriate conduct. For example, flirting on the job, which may be unavoidable at any large workplace, is one thing, harassment another. When does flirting become harassment? That can be a matter for tedious inquiry when a word to the wise is not sufficient. And in such situations, how much can be proved and how much is just a matter of conflicting and unverifiable testimony, a matter of he said and she said? Is mere accusation enough for termination? Is even the slightest misbehavior enough?
In any case under Connecticutâ€™s freedom-of-information law records involving misconduct on the job by government employees are public records subject to disclosure, as are separation agreements like the one Marie signed. Disclosing the agreement upon pestering by reporters after promising Marie to keep it confidential, the governorâ€™s office effectively acknowledged that it had misconstrued the law and misled Marie. The former commissioner, according to his lawyer, quoted by the Stamford Advocate, â€œunderstood and believed that private matters contained in someoneâ€™s personnel file are not disclosable ... otherwise he wouldnâ€™t have signed it.â€
But there are no â€œprivate mattersâ€ involving the job performance of public employees; that performance is by definition a matter of public interest -- and the more authority exercised by the employee, the more public interest.
That interest will endure even as the governor loses interest. So whoever is running things now â€” the governorâ€™s legal counsel or chief of staff â€” owes Connecticut some assurance that there will be no more lies and cover-ups like this on Rellâ€™s way out.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.