Time to open the UConn Foundation books

The mission of the University of Connecticut Foundation is to "promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research and recreational objectives of the university," which is another way of saying it is the university's fund-raising arm.

Google "UConn fund raising department" or "UConn development department" and there it is, the University of Connecticut Foundation.

This is not unusual. Many universities use private, tax-exempt foundations to raise money but they are as accountable to the public as any other part of the taxpayer-funded university. Not so, the University of Connecticut Foundation, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. Thanks to a law passed more than a decade ago by the General Assembly, this foundation, unlike those in other states, is exempt from the state's freedom of information laws.

The foundation has fought fiercely to keep it that way, successfully defeating annual efforts to repeal the law and going to court to combat any threats to its secrets.

In 2012, it fought successfully in the state Supreme Court to keep the identities of even its sports donors secret, along with the names of season ticket holders. The court bought the foundation's rather dubious argument that the identities were trade secrets.

The foundation has long argued that revealing donor identities would have "a chilling effect" on contributions. Yet in most cases, donors appear to revel in seeing their names on a chair of history or the side of a building. So when someone is only willing to give if things can remain hush-hush, one has to wonder what kind of influence they hope to quietly wield. Whenever the foundation's use of funds comes into question, as it did when it paid for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's trip to Switzerland to mingle with the likes of Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Bono and Tony Blair at the Davos World Economics Forum, the foundation, as usual, pointed out the money came from donors, not taxpayers. This argument would have us accept the proposition donors' funds used by the university don't have to be as prudently spent as taxpayers' funds. For the Malloy junket, the foundation claimed it paid for the trip to "promote Connecticut as an emerging leader in bioscience." Not surprisingly, Gov. Malloy believes the foundation is private and has the right to spend its money however it wishes, including plane tickets to Switzerland.

More recently, the foundation has fallen back on the donors' argument to justify far more expensive activities. Unknown and presumably unchilled donors financed the purchase of a $600,000 pied-a-terre in Hartford's wealthiest neighborhood for President Susan Herbst, the better to raise money from prospects unenthusiastic about making the trek to Storrs.

And, of course, there was the celebrated $251,000 to allow a few students to hear Hillary Clinton repeat familiar talking points as she launched a book tour and possibly a presidential campaign.

When the Clinton speech fee unfortunately coincided with a rather large, 6.5 percent tuition increase and Gov. Malloy's support for a $1.5 billion, taxpayer-funded expansion of the university, the situation became messy. The foundation explained the Clinton appearance came from the Edmund Fusco Foundation, named for a longtime New Haven contractor with strong Democratic ties, that underwrites lecture series on the campus. The former First Lady and Secretary of State donated the UConn money to the non-profit Clinton Foundation.

In 2000, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano was criticized for selecting Fusco as the contractor for the Galleria Mall on the city's Long Wharf, even though the firm's qualifications as a mall builder were questioned and Fusco owed the state $118,000 for an unpaid mortgage, according to The Hartford Courant.

In February, Paula Perlman, an attorney for the FOI Commission, told the Government Administration and Elections Committee that the foundation's own mission statement - that it operates exclusively "to promote the educational, scientific, cultural, research and recreational objectives of the University" - is convincing evidence that the foundation's activities are the public's business.

The bill died in the committee.

We would urge legislators, who are and should be strong supporters of the university, to take another look at the foundation in light of these activities and affirm what has always been so. The money it raises goes to a public university and its business is the public's business.

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