OP-ED | Striking A Pose For Openness And Efficiency?
Two stories surfaced last week that shed light on the way state government operates and the low regard some officials have for those who act as watchdogs for the people.
After being urged to do so for months, state Insurance Commissioner Katherine Wade finally recused herself from further review of the Anthem-Cigna merger. Wade, you may recall, was until 2013 vice president of public policy, government affairs and U.S. compliance at Cigna, the Bloomfield-based insurance behemoth looking to be acquired by the even larger Anthem, a health insurer based in Indianapolis. For eight years previous to her stint at Cigna, Wade headed a lobbying group for Connecticut’s insurance plans.
In other words, Wade is steeped in the very industry that she is charged with regulating. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with that. As I’ve written before, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set about picking his cabinet, he wanted people who knew their stuff. And often that involves people who have worked in the private sector.
But Wade’s is a special case. Her husband still works as an attorney for Cigna. So a state government agency headed by Wade is charged with overseeing a proposed merger involving her husband’s employer, which is also her previous employer and a company she previously represented as a lobbyist. Oh, and her husband has unvested stock options in Cigna.
As you can imagine, there had been multiple calls for Wade to recuse herself from any involvement in the proposed merger. The pleas came not only from newspaper editorial boards and good-government groups such as Common Cause, but also from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who can barely agree on anything else.
But Wade continued to insist she had no conflict of interest, which no doubt emboldened the Office of State Ethics to demand information about the stock options held by her husband. Only after being confronted with the possibility of releasing personal financial information did Wade finally disqualify herself last Thursday.
However, Wade clung to the notion she had no divided loyalties — instead blaming her decision to recuse on “unwarranted and unfair distractions for the department, despite no conflict of interest.” Yes, she’s correct that there were distractions but they were entirely of her own making.
These are clarifying moments for public figures. They talk a good game about integrity and the people’s right to openness and honesty in public life. But the reality is something different. To wit, Donald Trump often threatens to sue media outlets in retaliation for articles and reports that are unflattering to him, but he rarely follows through. That’s because during the discovery phase of any defamation trial, he would have to cough up file cabinets full of personal information — much of which, no doubt, would be far more damaging to his own reputation than the offending article.
The inverse is true of Wade. It looks like the insurance commissioner only took appropriate action because she, too, would have been forced to disclose information she would rather have kept private. At any rate, Wade finally did the right thing, which should remove at least some of the taint if and when the Insurance Department weighs in on the proposed merger.
And in the last week’s Government Watch column, Jon Lender, the Courant’s ace investigative reporter, uncovered through an FOI request a treasure trove of emails from Malloy administration officials reflecting a new directive to the 25 executive-branch agencies that they send the governor’s office a daily email describing all questions they received from journalists and the replies they provided.
“He’s definitely looking to bash us in this column,” wrote the new Department of Public Health information officer Maura Downes. “[T]his guy is like the Jonathan Pelto of Greenwich.” Downes was bracing herself — and her bosses — for an upcoming column from the Greenwich Time’s Bob Horton on lead found in the soil on the grounds of Western Middle School.
I’ve often wondered what the public officials I deal with every day say about me behind closed doors and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. So Lender’s column is well worth reading for that reason alone. But the new strategy dreamed up by Malloy’s communications director Devon Puglia is — despite assertions to the contrary — clearly designed to manage media coverage and therefore the image of his boss.
After I tweeted out Lender’s column earlier this week, Puglia tweeted back at me, paraphrasing a line he gave to Lender to the effect that the new policy is a “management innovation” reflecting the fact that “residents want a government that operates efficiently, one in which everyone is on the same page.”
But according to Lender, Downes wrote another email a couple of days later indicating she’d done some checking on Horton and recommended “that we not respond to his questions.”
How exactly would doing a background check on a journalist and withholding information give us “a government that operates efficiently?” Come to think of it, that’s hardly a “management innovation” either. It’s simply par for the course — only better organized.
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