Speaker's nepotism probe thin
House Speaker Bill O'Brien's investigation of nepotism in state government produced only one case of an agency head with a relative working in his department, O'Brien said in a statement yesterday.
Assistant Safety Commissioner Earl Sweeney reported that his son works as a state trooper, although Sweeney was not working for the department when his son was hired around 1985.
Sweeney said yesterday he does not supervise his son and is "six layers" removed from him within the Department of Safety's chain of command.
Meanwhile, four state officials did not respond to O'Brien's inquiry by Monday's deadline, one because he found it insulting. That prompted O'Brien to draw conclusions and promise further investigation yesterday. The four are Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas and Deputy Commissioner Mary Ann Cooney of the Health and Human Services Department; Executive Director Glenn Normandeau of Fish and Game; and Commissioner George Bald of the state Department of Resources and Economic Development.
"The House remains concerned that several agency leaders did not respond, which suggests the conclusion that there may be incidents of nepotism in their departments," O'Brien said in his statement.
The Monitor obtained the statement from another source after O'Brien's office didn't respond to the paper's three requests for the information. O'Brien has said he will not engage with the Monitor because he considers its coverage of him unfair and biased.
Reached yesterday while on vacation, Bald said he didn't respond to O'Brien's letter because he found its wording and tone "extremely insulting and demeaning to me as a government official, and more importantly to the people who work for me."
O'Brien asked agency heads in mid-July to identify relatives in their employ after allegations the heads of the Department of Employment Security had gotten their daughters temporary jobs and then arranged for them to be laid off so they could collect unemployment benefits.
"The recent incidents of nepotism validate the underlying belief of many that government is corrupt and geared toward enriching those who hold power," O'Brien wrote to department heads. "The furtherance of this presumption through the acts of high-ranking state leaders is corrosive to public confidence and is something that we all have a vested interest in eliminating as quickly and thoroughly as possible."
That language didn't sit well with Bald, who has been the commissioner of the Department of Resources and Economic Development twice, spanning 13 years.
"Because of a problem in one agency, that somehow proves that government is corrupt?" Bald said yesterday. "I work for the governor, and the governor knows I don't have any relatives working for me."
Normandeau, reached at his office, said neither he nor his department directors have any relatives working at Fish and Game. "We have always complied, to my knowledge, in the time I've been here, with the state policy" forbidding agency officials to play a direct role in the hiring, firing or setting compensation of relatives.
Asked why he had not told O'Brien that himself, Normandeau said, O'Brien's "letter is probably in a pile on my desk."
Normandeau suggested he would have preferred a more personal approach. "I've got nothing to hide," he said. "Anybody can walk into the building any time or call me up and have a conversation," he said. "We've got an open door here, and I'm happy to talk to anybody."
Toumpas and Cooney have been busy with other work and did not get their responses to O'Brien in time, Health and Human Services spokeswoman Kris Neilsen said. She said Toumpas and Cooney have no relatives working in the department and told O'Brien so in a letter yesterday.
O'Brien sounded only partly pleased with the results of his nepotism inquiry.
"Certainly, from what we've learned, it appears that the situation at Employment Security appears to be isolated," his statement said. He went on to say, however, that he has received unsolicited letters from state employees and others "who have pointed out what they believe to be violations of the nepotism statute throughout state government."
O'Brien's statement continued: "Clearly, this is an issue that needs far greater oversight across all departments and it is an area that needs more legislative involvement. I will be working with several committees to identify ways to ensure that our government is clean and not avoiding the appearance or the reality of cronyism. Our citizens and taxpayers certainly deserve that much and we will make sure they get it."
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican, and Monitor letter writers have questioned whether O'Brien's office also suffers from a perception of nepotism and cronyism.
Shannon (Shutts) Bettencourt, who works in O'Brien's office and acts as his spokeswoman, is married to D.J. Bettencourt, the former House majority leader.
D.J. Bettencourt was the leader of the House Republican caucus when Shutts was hired in December 2010. D.J. Bettencourt resigned in May after admitting he had fabricated a law school internship.
The couple married in May and is expecting a child later this year. Shannon Bettencourt is paid $45,458 a year, according to state records. Her official title is coordinator of correspondence and constituent services.
The Monitor asked O'Brien on July 18 to respond to concerns about Bettencourt's employment in light of his nepotism investigation. He has not responded.
(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, email@example.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)