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Amidst Esty scandal, Judicial Committee moves to end non-disparagement agreements in state agencies

On Monday, the Judicial Committee unanimously passed a bill which would end the use of non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements by quasi-public agencies such as UConn and the Connecticut Lottery Corporation.

The legislation passed as details concerning Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty’s handling of abuse allegations against her chief of staff Tony Baker became national news.

Baker allegedly threatened and physically assaulted a female member of Esty’s staff, but was not terminated until three months later after Esty agreed to pay off Baker’s student loans and scrub negative information from his personnel file as part of a non-disclosure agreement.

But Connecticut quasi-public agencies have been signing non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements with former employees for years, many in excess of $100,000 and some of which involved accusations of abuse and harassment.

The separation agreements are essentially pay-offs to prevent future litigation, but also prevent facts and details about potentially damaging incidents in state agencies from reaching the public.

Connecticut state auditors recommended Connecticut end the practice of offering large non-disparagement agreements to former employees in their 2017 and 2018 state audits, noting the payments were technically in violation of state statute and could prevent whistleblowers from coming forward.

According to statute, such agreements require oversight by the governor or the attorney general, but the statute has been ignored.

Information obtained by Yankee Institute in 2017 showed UConn made numerous six-figure separation agreements which contained non-disparagement clauses with professors who were dismissed amidst allegations of harassment and abuse.

In other cases, school officials were separated from employment but given their full salary to be an “off-site, part-time consultant,” what is commonly known as a “golden handshake.”

The Hartford Courant ran a series of articles highlighting the resignation of Anne Noble, former CEO of the Connecticut Lottery Corp. Noble continued to receive her salary, even though she resigned amidst a lottery game error which cost millions.

Noble’s payout as an “advisor” for CT Lottery was part of the separation agreement which included a non-disparagement clause. The arrangement was cited by state auditors.

The legislation would end all non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements for quasi-public agencies — citing UConn, UConn Health, and the CT Lottery Corp. specifically.

Along with the unanimous passage in Judicial Committee, it appears the legislation restricting these payments is supported by both sides of the political aisle

The legislation is co-sponsored by Senate President Pro-Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven.

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, testified in support of the bill. “Given the state’s dire financial condition,” Cheeseman said in her written testimony, “it is absolutely essential that the General Assembly exercises oversight of these payments or prohibits them.”

Looney cited the departure of Michael Gargano as provost of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities as an example of why the state should restrict such payments.

Gargano continued to collect his salary for sixteen weeks after being abrupty dismissed as provost, but neither he, nor officials within the state university system, could offer an explanation as to why he was dismissed.

Gargano’s departure in 2015 sparked a similar bill pushed forward by Democrats in the Senate. The legislation passed the Senate but was never brought up for a vote in the House.

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Marc E. Fitch

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