The top ethics official in Connecticut state government got a friend transferred to her agency last year amid agency consolidation, a move she defends as “a business decision.”
Carol Carson, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said she consulted her agency’s legal division and disclosed her friendship to the chairman of the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board during the transfer process.
“She was up front about it,” said David Gay, CEAB chairman. “Because Carol had an occasional friendship with this lady does not disqualify her.”
Carson maintains she did nothing wrong and was meeting the needs of her agency rather than helping a friend.
The effort to negotiate the transfer began last year and received administration approval in November. When state officials rescinded the approval, Carson had to come up with a new approach that did not need their blessing.
OSE and the State Elections Enforcement Commission formalized a final agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding, last month.
Under the MOU, SEEC traded its communications and legislative programs manager, Nancy Nicolescu, for OSE’s unfilled accounts examiner position.
Nicolescu, a state employee with more than 15 years experience, is Carson’s friend. According to her LinkedIn page, Nicolescu is now the director of education, communications and legislative affairs for OSE.
After union state employees voted down a concession package in the summer of 2011, Nicolescu received a layoff notice alongside many other state employees. When state employees later approved the concession agreement on a revote, the state withdrew Nicolescu’s pink slip, although she is not a union member.
Carson said the agreement is “mutually advantageous” for SEEC and OSE.
“The transfer was a creative solution,” she said.
Carson is lobbying the legislature to make the transfer permanent. The appropriations bill currently under consideration would do just that.
Carson earned $118,759 in 2010, according to CTSunlight.org. Nicolescu earned $86,156.
The legislature and Gov. M. Jodi Rell remade Connecticut’s ethics bureaucracy in the wake of the scandals that led to the resignation and imprisonment of Gov. John Rowland.
Carson, a Massachusetts’s native, left her position at the ethics commission there to become the first leader of the new Office of State Ethics in Connecticut.
In addition to her role as ethics chief, Carson is chairman of the Governmental Accountability Commission, which oversees the Office of Governmental Accountability.
Carson said the temporary transfer agreement “was meant to get us through this period. And by us, I mean both agencies.”
Carson said Nicolescu is “absolutely not” lobbying for her own job to become permanently part of OSE.
“Our regulations state that I am the primary legislative liaison,” Carson said.
Asked if her friendship with Nicolescu influenced her decision to pursue the transfer, Carson said, “No, it was a business decision.”
According to an April 2011 press release, OSE fined Dr. David Carter, former chancellor of the Connecticut State University System, $2,000 for “failure to inform the Board of Trustees of the CSUS and/or the Office of State Ethics when he was faced with a conflict of interest involving his spouse, a former dean at one of the state universities.”
“The conflict of interest provisions of the Code of Ethics preserve the integrity of public service,” Carson said at the time. “Conflicts of interest must be properly disclosed as required by law, and handled at a level higher than the individual with the conflict.”
Carson said the transfer of her friend’s position is not a conflict of interest because “the statute deals with financial interest.”
When asked about the risk of appearance of conflict, Carson said Connecticut doesn’t have such a provision in statute, but “in states where the code has an appearance section, it’s often cured with disclosure.”
Carson said she disclosed her friendship with Nicolescu.
“I sought advice from the legal division,” she said. “I disclosed it to the chairman. And when the initial transfer took place, I disclosed it to the staff.”
Carson said the reductions in staff at OSE justify the transfer.
According to Carson, OSE lost five employees amid agency consolidation that paired it with eight other small agencies under the umbrella of OGA, which provides administrative services.
She said OSE lost an investigator, an associate account examiner, an office assistant and two finance employees, bringing it from 18 employees to 13.
“In a small agency, people do lots of tasks,” Carson said. “They were not just doing fiscal things. They were doing programmatic things.”
Carson said her first approach to get more help at OSE was to ask the Department of Administrative Services for permission to hire someone.
“I had a hard time getting an appropriate level position approved from the administration,” she said.
Then Carson attempted to get Nicolescu transferred to OSE.
Because DAS would not approve the hiring of a new state employee, Carson’s only option to increase staff at her agency was to find someone already within state government.
She said Nicolescu had the experience needed by OSE.
Carson told the Citizen’s Ethics Advisory Board about the transfer on Nov. 18, 2011, a day after the CEAB had a board meeting.
“I am friendly with Nancy – we worked together extensively during the last legislative session – and was aware that she had applied for a transfer out of SEEC for a variety of reasons,” Carson wrote.
CEAB member Dennis Riley complimented Carson on her ability to negotiate the transfer in an email saying, “Your negotiating skills reflect your Boston background.”
“I grew up in a Boston housing project,” Carson responded, “and there’s a saying: ‘You can take the girl out of the projects but you can’t take the projects out of the girl.’ I had to use my ‘projects’ skills for this one but it turned out for the best of the agency and I’m looking forward to moving forward with a full staff.”
On Nov. 30, 2011, DAS Commissioner Donald DeFronzo wrote an email to Carson and Guay rescinding his agency’s oral approval of the transfer.
“This request had been initially reviewed as an intra-agency transfer within OGA,” DeFronzo wrote. “However, given the independent status of the agencies housed in OGA and, in view of their independent budget authority and recognition that each of the nine agencies comprising OGA are, for the purposes of seniority and re-employment rights, considered to be separate agencies, this action cannot be considered an intra-agency transfer.”
David Guay, executive administrator of OGA, requested a delay in the retraction until OSE and SEEC could negotiate a memorandum of understanding, but DeFronzo declined.
Unlike a transfer, DAS wouldn’t need to approve an MOU.
About a month later, two days before Christmas, Carson and SEEC chairman Stephen Cashman signed an agreement in principle on the job-sharing arrangement. According to the agreement, Nicolescu would begin working for OSE and OSE would pay her salary as long as the two agencies eventually completed an MOU.
Carson and the new executive director and general counsel of SEEC, Michael Brandi, signed the MOU on March 12.
The agreement, which lasts through Oct. 31, moved Nicolescu’s salary onto OSE’s budget and put 80 percent of her time at the agency’s disposal.
In return, SEEC got an unfilled auditing position, but DAS has not given permission to fill that position yet. Under the agreement, the accounts examiner would work for SEEC 80 percent of the time and OSE 20 percent of the time.
Carson said SEEC benefits even though the auditing position isn’t filled because OSE is paying Nicolescu’s whole salary.
Guay said Carson makes decisions and he executes them. “I do my best to execute the decision,” Guay said.
“In many ways I’m like the broker,” he said. “I execute the trade.”
As chairman of the Governmental Accountability Commission, Carson oversees Guay. His salary is
OGA provides administrative services for a group of small agencies, including OSE, SEEC and the Freedom of Information Commission.
SEEC and FOIC are led by executive directors who double as general counsel for the agency.
Carson, not a lawyer, hires and oversees the general counsel, enforcement officer and the rest of OSE staff. “I was and continue to be the executive director of the Office of State Ethics,” she said.
She said before Nicolescu joined OSE she had received support from other employees to do legislative affairs. “I’ve always used staff to support that function.”
Asked why she increased the hours of the communications manager to full time, Carson said, “You are wrong. The previous position was a full-time position. It was funded as that and it was in our budget as that.”
“The position was a full-time position. That is 100 percent true,” she said. “The individual worked part-time but the position was full-time.”
Meredith Trimble, who held that position, earned $43,989 in 2010.
The previous person in charge of education and communication worked less than full time since 2007. Before that – “for a period of time,” according to Carson – the person worked full time.
Carson said the need to increase the hours worked stemmed from the reduction of OSE staff by five people, or almost a third. “We had a significant cut of resources,” she said.
Carson said education is a “driver” of OSE’s success.
“When we do more education, we have more compliance. We have more complaints,” she said, explaining that both are good measures of success.
Carson said education is the joint responsibility of the executive director and the general counsel.