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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    State treasurer ends ripoff

    Don't say Connecticut state government can't get anything right. State Treasurer Erick Russell's office has just corrected the spectacular ripoff exposed 20 months ago in state government's handling of unclaimed financial assets.

    Back then the Connecticut Mirror reported that over the previous two decades state government had kept hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed assets -- uncashed checks, refunds, and forgotten insurance policies and investments left with banks, other financial companies, and utilities -- without trying very hard to track down the owners.

    While the state occasionally advertised the unclaimed assets, it didn't advertise the lesser ones, and when owners did come forward, they sometimes faced onerous and discouraging paperwork. State government would liquidate the assets and use some of the money for public financing of political campaigns, recording a cash credit for owners who might show up someday. Most didn't.

    Now the treasurer's office is looking vigorously for and finding many more owners of unclaimed assets. While the average number of people recovering assets from the unclaimed property program each year in its previous 23 fiscal years was only 16,000, in the fiscal year just ended nearly 73,000 got their assets back -- a 350% increase.

    Last year it was feared that most owners couldn't be located without giving the treasurer's office access to the tax records of individuals, which the General Assembly wouldn't do. But the treasurer's office discovered that most people to whom unclaimed assets belong can be found by combing commercial databases that have been available to businesses and journalists all along.

    While Treasurer Russell has shown that state government can serve the public interest well when it wants to, his reform of the unclaimed property program also shows that to do the right thing government often needs the sting of journalism, which has been declining, along with literacy and civic engagement, even in supposedly educated and prosperous Connecticut. That decline was reflected last week in the low participation in some of the state's municipal primary elections.

    The reform of the unclaimed property program also undermines the claims by Connecticut's state and municipal government employee unions that the addresses of government employees should be exempt from freedom-of-information law. Such exemptions impair accountability in government, and the success of the treasurer's office in locating so many people from commercial databases shows that such exemptions are not likely to be very effective anyway. Like it or not, the internet age has undone much privacy.

    ‘If you want truth, you steal it’

    Connecticut Attorney General William Tong couldn't have been too happy about it, but last week an investigation by his office vindicated the guerrilla journalism of Project Veritas, which last year surreptitiously video-recorded an assistant school principal in Greenwich, Jeremy Boland, saying he prevented the hiring of teachers who are Catholics and political conservatives.

    When the recording was publicized, its authenticity was publicly doubted by people who detest Project Veritas' politics and deceptive tactics, as the attorney general himself does. It was as if there is no leftist and totalitarian bias in public education like that articulated by Boland, who was put on paid leave and eventually resigned.

    Like Greenwich's own investigation, the attorney general's could find no evidence of the discrimination Boland claimed to have committed, nor evidence that Boland made any hiring decisions on his own. But, the attorney general added, Boland "admits that the Project Veritas recordings accurately represent his words. He maintains that he made the comments to curry favor with a woman he met on a dating app."

    How short the political left's memory is. During the Vietnam War 50 years ago it was the left that best understood that misconduct in government sometimes can be exposed only by impolite, unconventional, or deceptive means. Back then this was conveyed perfectly by a political cartoon drawn by a great liberal, Jules Feiffer, who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize. The cartoon's caption: "If you want lies, you go to a government press conference. If you want truth, you steal it."

    Even with the left in charge all these years later, power still corrupts.

    Chris Powell is a syndicated columnist in Connecticut.

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