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E-mails cast doubt on Rell in flap over budget poll

Hartford - University of Connecticut professor Kenneth Dautrich conducted a $6,000 poll this spring on the orders of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's chief of staff aimed at weighing voters' attitudes toward tax increases, borrowing and service cuts as Rell struggled to gain an upper hand over legislative Democrats in a brewing standoff over the state budget.

And while Rell has insisted that she did not know Dautrich had helped craft the questions for that poll "until I read it in the newspaper," e-mails that the chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody, sent to Dautrich suggest otherwise.

"Governor thought it was great too," Moody wrote to Dautrich on April 7 after approving a draft of the poll, which was paid for by Rell's exploratory committee.

The poll would ask detailed questions about the voters' support for raising some taxes versus cutting services, and what effect those moves would have on the governor's popularity.

If Rell "agrees to the Democrats plan to put the budget deficit problem behind us," one sample question asks, "would it make you more supportive of her or less supportive of her?"

In a recent public appearance in Old Saybrook, Rell insisted repeatedly that she had not known that Dautrich had suggested questions for the poll.

"I did not know that, and I don't know whether he did or not," Rell said.

A spokesman for the governor declined to comment Tuesday on questions related to Dautrich, citing ongoing investigations by the Auditors of Public Accounts and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal into the possible misuse of state resources.

The e-mails between Dautrich and Moody were obtained Tuesday by The Day through a public records request. Rell's office had initially failed to produce the April exchange between Dautrich and Moody, but included it after The Day raised questions about the governor's office's compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Dautrich did not return calls Tuesday but has said in previous interviews that he consulted on Rell's committee poll but was never paid by the committee.

That is seemingly confirmed in his exchange with Moody, in which Dautrich asks whether the poll will be paid for with private funds or whether he should conduct it through his position at UConn.

"Just let me know if I should log this in as a uconn project, or not," Dautrich wrote on April 8.

"Got the sign off - private," Moody responded.

Dautrich later told Moody the committee would be charged only for the cost of the phone-banking to conduct the survey. That $6,000 payment to Braun Research in Princeton, N.J., listed in Rell's committee's campaign filings, caught the eye of political veterans and consultants in Hartford, since statewide surveys routinely cost several times that amount to produce.

Dautrich's failure to charge Rell's committee for political services is the subject of a pending elections complaint filed by a Hartford consultant and former political director to the state Democrats, Jonathan Pelto.

Dautrich drafted the poll for Rell just months after conducting a secret and now-controversial focus group to help the governor gauge public opinion as she put together her 2010-11 budget proposal. That focus group was paid for out of the $223,000 contract Dautrich has with the Office of Policy and Management, which is intended to support a 30-month survey of strategies for streamlining the budget. It has also been used to help craft Rell's budget messaging, a fact that has led lawmakers and others to criticize Rell for inappropriately mingling political and government business.

In an interview just before The Day first reported on the focus groups Dautrich conducted on the budget - now known to include at least two others conducted as part of his classwork at UConn last fall - Dautrich insisted that he had not helped advise on the governor's political poll while on state time.

But if Dautrich gave his services as a pollster to the governor's committee free of charge, Pelto and other observers believe the committee may have run afoul of campaign finance laws, which set a $375 limit on the value of in-kind contributions that may be given to an exploratory committee.

In their exchange in April, Moody and Dautrich share their frustration that voters outside the Capitol seem not to reflect a deep enough urgency about the tax increases Democrats were then proposing, which Dautrich calls the largest since Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. introduced the income tax in 1991.

The poll, he wrote to Moody, would help them both understand why the general public didn't seem to feel as they did.

"The poll will shed light on this," he wrote.

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