A recently retired state employee with almost four decades of experience, including almost 20 years overseeing grants from state bond money, first alerted state officials to problems with $300,000 in proposed funding for the New Haven People’s Center, an organization run by officials in the Connecticut chapter of the Communist Party USA.
Mary Plaskonka oversaw bond-funded grants from the Department of Social Services for 19 of her nearly 39 years at DSS. She retired in March.
Plaskonka’s email to several state officials, including legislators, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes and DSS Commissioner Roderick Bremby, raised concerns about the People’s Center and its parent organization, Progressive Education and Research Associates.
“I am requesting that you review and deny this item,” Plaskonka wrote. “Is the state in a position to use public funds to support the renovations of a Communist Party Political Center in the amount of $300,000? Why can’t that party raise their own funds to renovate the building? It appears they lack the financial resources to operate this facility to begin with.”
Plaskonka said the center’s top officials, Alfred Mardur and Joelle Fishman, are part-time volunteers. “Who will have oversight of the project – the part time volunteers?” she said.
In a phone interview Monday, Plaskonka said the “shenanigans” with state bonds are “enough to make you vomit.”
“I think I can speak more freely than ever before,” she said citing her retirement. “You have to bite your tongue because you need your job to pay your rent.”
Plaskonka said she was not singling out the People’s Center because of its Communist Party connection. “Why don’t they have a fundraiser like other organizations do?” she said.
“You won’t find anything at DSS because DSS is not the agency that these entities apply to for a grant,” Plaskonka said.
She said normally an application through DSS is vetted by staff.
When a project goes from the legislature to OPM – “which is really the governor’s office,” Plaskonka said – “generally they don’t have a stitch of paper on it in their office.”
“We work our way backwards with it,” she said. “Everything is done verbally.”
Freedom of Information Act requests to DSS and OPM turned up no documents preceding Plaskonka’s April 24 email, just three days before the commission was set to vote on the grant.
Plaskonka criticized Govs. Lowell Weicker, John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell – all of whom she indirectly worked for – on their bonding records, explaining that Gov. Dannel Malloy has done better.
She said when Weicker was leaving office there was a “going-out-of-business bonding sale.”
“It was like zillions of dollars it seems,” she said.
Plaskonka said Rowland had an “especially” bad record and “Rell was no better.”
“She would just bond, bond, bond,” she said.
Plaskonka said she remembers when Rell bonded $1 million to help Connecticut Hospice pay down its debt. She said it troubled her that the organization’s top finance official made nearly $300,000, while doctors made half that amount.
“These guys went to medical school,” she said. “Why are you coming to the state for some money? Why aren’t you looking in your internal budget?”
Plaskonka described the Malloy administration as “frugal.”
“They are being careful,” she said. “Finally somebody realizes that this is really debt.”
Plaskonka said the People’s Center funding is a rare case of the Malloy administration not being as careful.
She also praised state Rep. Sean Williams, R-Watertown, for his work on the State Bond Commission.
Plaskonka said projects get funded without any vetting because they are backed by a legislator on the State Bonding Commission.
“You’re required to process the grant and just give them the money,” she said.
“This is basically free money,” Plaskonka said, except “there is a requirement that they continue to operate the facility for 10 years.”
“As long as you have a politician rallying for you – and it has to be a high up politician – you should be ok,” Plaskonka said.
“Or if you have a lobbyist,” she said, mentioning that law firms that work on bonding projects for the state are especially effective lobbyists for grants.
Plaskonka said “the next two generations” are going to pay off the state’s nearly $20 billion in bonded debt. “The bonding commission is like a candy store,” she said. “I think it’s wrong.”
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