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Ex-Board of Regents president got lots of perks

Updated 12:22 am, Friday, December 7, 2012

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Here's former Board of Regents President Robert Kennedy's compensation package: Total: $445,427 in 13 months Performance Bonus: [issued summer 2012]: $25,000 Unvouchered expense account [ accommodation account] payments: $24, 781 [2011]; $13,527 [2012] Vacation payout, last check: $4,342 Cost of Health insurance: $15,183 Eligible for $20,000 deferred compensation payout but that payment is not being made Cost of state vehicle: $36,863
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HARTFORD -- Despite being paid $455,000 in 13 months, Connecticut's former Board of Regents president charged taxpayers nearly $400 for gourmet coffee and a yearly subscription to Sirius XM radio so he could stay tuned-in while driving around in his free state car, among other perks.

Robert Kennedy also scarfed up about $1,800 in meals, including a $350 dinner with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's former chief of staff Tim Bannon. And he charged $3,000 to a Exxon Mobil gas card and spent $78 on flowers for a staff member.

He was even reimbursed for highway tolls as low as 80 cents.

A review of Kennedy's expenses by Hearst Connecticut Newspapers shows a never-ending flow of spending by the former president of the state Board of Regents for Higher Education.

"You just made my head explode," said state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Torrington, co-chair of the Legislature's Higher Education Committee, when told of Kennedy's spending. "You are talking to a person who makes $32,000 a year (as a part-time legislator) and works how many hours and you are telling me that someone who made almost $500,000 charged taxpayers $400 for gourmet coffee?"

Kennedy resigned in disgrace in October after nearly $300,000 in controversial raises were doled out to office staff without BOR approval. Outrage from lawmakers and others spilled from newspaper headlines for weeks.

Records obtained by Hearst through a freedom of information request detail hundreds of different types of expenses for which Kennedy was reimbursed beyond his base salary, including dinners, lunches, office supplies, internet equipment, gasoline, hotel rooms and an education conference.

Just $2,264 worth of Kennedy's receipts were rejected by the BOR, and that happened only after Hearst Newspapers asked questions about a confusing accounting system the BOR used to reimburse its president.

"Many aspects of this arrangement are unsightly at best, especially given the current fiscal climate," conceded Andrew Doba, a spokesman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Reached at his Baxter, Minn., home, Kennedy said his compensation followed the contract he negotiated with Malloy.

"There is nothing illegal or improper here," said Kennedy, who previously was president of the University of Maine. "It's all based on a contract negotiated with the governor's office. I think it was all very much in line."

Asked if he did anything wrong, Kennedy said "absolutely not."

MAKING MONEY

Records show that Kennedy collected $445,427 for 13 months of service as a state employee. That includes $377,000 in base salary allotted over 29 pay periods. He earned about $162 an hour.

His total pay includes a variety of extras, the result of the contract approved by Gov. Malloy.

Compensation included a $25,000 performance bonus last summer for his good work; a $24,781 payment last summer from his yearly unvouchered expense account [which the state calls an accommodation account]; a $13,527 accommodation payment in September, only weeks before he resigned, and $4,342 in unused vacation time.

He was entitled to $25,000 in moving expenses and used about $15,700 of that total.

Kennedy was named interim BOR president in August of 2011 by Gov. Malloy, months before the board governing the new system was established. He was approved as president by the General Assembly in January of 2012.

He was in charge of the state's local four-year schools, including Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, the various community colleges and the Charter Oak system in Hartford. A separate president and board oversee UCONN.

In addition to vacation time, Kennedy was allowed eight weeks of personal development time, which amounted to "working" from his Minnesota home, a $36,863 Toyota Highlander SUV, and the state paid $15,183 for his health insurance.

He is also eligible for a $20,000 deferred compensation payment, but the regents elected not to send that payment.

During September and October of 2011, the state paid nearly $2,500 to house Kennedy at the posh Hawthorne at Gillette Ridge, a high-end apartment complex in Bloomfield that later became his permanent residence. The state earlier spent $3,500 to house him at the Homewood Suites Hotel in Hartford.

Days after resigning, Kennedy returned his second $25,000 accommodation account payment. However, he returned the full $25,000, not the more than $13,500 he actually received after taxes and other deductions. So in an ironic twist, the state is sending him a new check for $9,209.

That amount includes a $2,264 deduction for expenses deemed improper after a reexamination of his spending.

"He was charging Connecticut and now he's getting paid back," Willis said. "What you are telling me is incredulous and discouraging and disappointing."

"It's 19th century style patronage adjusted for inflation," said Cullen Fergus, director of the conservative Yankee Institute, which promotes government accountability.

"It's not the first time and it's not the last time this will happen," Fergus said. "But this never should have been done in the first place."

HOUSING EXPENSEs

Kennedy was installed as regents president during a rushed process that's unique in recent Connecticut history.

Gov. Malloy, who is not known for his patience, decided to separate the community college and local four-year college system from UCONN, and the General Assembly went along, creating a new Board of Regents. The idea was to produce savings and efficiencies from a previously bloated system.

But Malloy opted to first hire a president for his new agency and negotiate a contract.

The BOR was formed after Kennedy's contract was already inked and the deal was placed before the new BOR, which ratified it. Kennedy became permanent president in January 2012 when the General Assembly granted its approval.

What followed was confusion and controversy over how the BOR would operate, how Kennedy's contract would be executed and what powers the executive team held.

The result is now well documented: Kennedy resigned after being linked to huge raises for staff, along with his executive vice president, Michael Meotti, a former state education commissioner and friend of the governor.

An early point of confusion centered on Kennedy's accommodation accounts, which have previously been described as unvouchered expense accounts. During an interview with Hearst, Kennedy said the accounts were actually established as an alternative to providing him an official residence, like the president of UCONN and the governor both receive.

"It's common for a person in my position, a former college president, to have an official residence afforded to them. This is what the accommodation accounts were supposed to be for," said Kennedy, who was provided an official residence as president of the University of Maine.

Willis, who as the higher education committee head guided the new regents system through the General Assembly, scoffed at the idea of a residence for Kennedy.

"There is no precedent here for that. This is a community college president and the Charter Oak system. We are not talking about the flagship university. He thinks he was a big frog in a little pond," Willis said.

"The new system was created out of whole cloth. It was a political creation in some sense," Kennedy said. "UCONN and the University of Maine are 75 to 150 years old. They have procedures in place to handle this. They have rules."

As Kennedy began incurring expenses, whether for dinner or office supplies, he was told to submit receipts and staff would determine which account would be charged: regular business expenses, moving expenses or his accommodation account.

But Johnson said staff eventually realized the system was unworkable because his accommodation expenses were at his discretion.

In response to questions from Hearst, BOR staff reviewed its reimbursement system and produced a new accounting. Kennedy's expenses were again categorized into three types: moving, business and accommodation. But this time the accommodation accounts were drawn down by specific expenses, which didn't fit the other two categories.

The result was a discovery that Kennedy had exceeded his first accommodation account limit of $25,000 by $2,264. That money is being deducted from the overpayment by Kennedy when he returned his second accommodation money, Johnson said.

"Dr. Kennedy's expenses have been reviewed and he has been charged for any non-business related expenses incurred and we are in a position to immediately recover that money on behalf of Connecticut taxpayers," said BOR spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan Johnson.

Still, Johnson admitted "There was a serious failure in not having clear financial systems in place to properly account for expenses" after Kennedy took the helm at the regents.

Kennedy, who was interviewed on Wednesday, was unaware of the BOR reorganization of his expenses and did not know he was due to receive money for overpaying when he returned his final accommodation account payment.

Willis said she plans to look into the reimbursement process and requested the documents obtained by Hearst. "I may do something with this," she said.

The committee chairwoman said given the lucrative contract Kennedy received and the open nature of the accommodation accounts should have been sufficient to cover any of his expenses, especially dinners and coffee.

COLLEGE COMPETITION

The Malloy administration says Kennedy's contract was competitive with similar institutions and the result of what the state must do to attract high level administrators.

"Across the country, presidents of public college systems have an array of other forms of compensation beyond just a set salary," Doba said. "Connecticut has to compete with hundreds of other colleges in formulating compensation plans that are consistent with what similar institutions are offering."

"They include such things as use of a home, a car, deferred compensation, relocation expenses, expense accounts, club dues, retention bonuses, retirement contributions, supplemental retirement plans and longevity bonuses," Doba explained.

But a 2012 survey of salaries for presidents of big and small college systems casts doubt on the governor's contention that Kennedy's package was in line with the market.

The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources concluded that $272,500 a year is an average base salary for systems offering masters degrees, the most advanced degree offered by the four year colleges Kennedy oversaw.

The average pay for presidents in charge of systems offering doctorate degrees, like UCONN, is $480,000, the association determined.

Doba said it's difficult to compare colleges and pointed out that averages group low cost states with high cost states, like Connecticut.

Kennedy said his tenure was filled with confusion and a lack of structure.

"There was ignorance about what works and does not work and what should be allowed."