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More questions for Rell likely over budget-poll focus groups

Hartford - Kenneth Dautrich, the same professor who directed a Dec. 16 focus group that has landed Gov. M. Jodi Rell in a controversy about mingling policy and politics with taxpayer funds, worked with graduate students to conduct two substantially similar focus groups earlier last fall, documents filed at the University of Connecticut show.

The focus groups are classified as "graduate research" on the filings with the school's Office of Research Compliance, and the money to pay for the project appears to have come from Dautrich's faculty research accounts at the university. The names of the graduate students were redacted in copies of the documents provided by UConn to The Day.

Rell has insisted that only a single focus group was held last December to help her craft her budget message and weigh the public's opinion of various strategies to close a looming state deficit.

But the existence of two additional efforts to test the public's opinion on taxes and budgeting will likely raise more questions for Rell, who faces inquiries from state elections officials, state auditors and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal about the scope and purpose of Dautrich's research, which was publicly funded but included substantial advice on how to best position the governor politically and give her leverage over Democratic opponents in the legislature.

The research project occurred during the same period that Dautrich and Rell's chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, had discussed ways to measure public opinion as Rell crafted a new budget, including the idea - eventually discarded - to conduct a full-fledged phone poll of voters using the resources provided to Dautrich by the state Office of Policy and Management.

The filings show that one focus group was scheduled for Nov. 12 in the library of UConn's West Hartford campus, with a second held Nov. 19 in East Hartford.

A Rell spokesman would not say Wednesday whether any of the information collected in the earlier focus groups had been shared with the governor or her staff to help craft the budget message, though the subject matter was similar, according to a list of discussion points included in the compliance filings.

"Our office is not commenting while the audit - which we welcome and are cooperating with fully - is continuing," said the spokesman, Rich Harris.

Dautrich did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Additional documents obtained this week from UConn also confirm the view that unnamed representatives of the governor's office were seeking to strike a deal to pay Dautrich with public funds to conduct a voter poll to test Rell's budget proposal before she presented it to the public in February.

Rell has insisted that such a poll was rejected as soon as Dautrich proposed it in the summer of 2008, but e-mail exchanges among UConn academic department heads and several deans make it clear that university officials believed the Rell administration was on the verge of signing a "contract" to conduct the poll as late as Jan. 21, just two weeks before Rell's budget was to be presented to the legislature.

On Jan. 21, as UConn officials were debating whether university policy would require that Dautrich conduct any poll commissioned by the governor's office through the school's existing polling center - rather than conducting it independently, as Dautrich has said he would have preferred - Amy K. Donahue, the chair of the Public Policy Department and Dautrich's supervisor, informed Dean Jeremy Teitelbaum that Rell's staff was anxious to have a decision made soon.

"If possible, the governor's staff would like to meet about this project tomorrow morning," Donahue wrote in an e-mail.

Through a UConn spokesman, Donahue said Wednesday that the desires of the governor's staff had been relayed to her by Dautrich.

A review of documents provided by the university to The Day also shows that the governor's office did not fully comply with previous requests for public records, leaving out a handful of e-mail responses from Moody to Dautrich, including a message that thanks the professor for his help in crafting Rell's budget speech.

Harris declined to comment on any of the new findings in the UConn documents, but said in an interview this week that the Moody e-mails had been withheld from a reporter inadvertently because the governor's staff had not correctly used the "Find" function in the Outlook e-mail program when complying with The Day's records request.

t.mann@theday.com

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