'Comprehensive review' by Attorney General of Connecticut Landmarks is welcomed

Since Attorney General George Jepsen’s election in 2010, the AG’s office has chosen not to make a big media splash about entities it has had under investigation. That’s a dramatic reversal from the strategy employed by Jepsen’s predecessor, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who often used the office’s bully pulpit to slam those in its crosshairs.

Jepsen’s approach has usually been to wait until his office reached the point of filing civil litigation — the attorney general has no criminal prosecutorial authority in Connecticut — or had reached a conclusion or settlement.

This seems to be the case, again, as the office quietly probes the operations of Connecticut Landmarks and its management of historic properties bequeathed into its trust to preserve. Jepsen’s office has plenty to look at.

The dogged reporting of Day news columnist David Collins over the past couple of months has raised serious questions about the lack of maintenance of homes left in Landmarks’ care, about the integrity of the historic collections they contain, and the potential mingling of funds left to care for specific properties.

While there have been no Blumenthal-style press conferences to alert the public about the hard look the Office of the Attorney General appears to be taking, a statement the office released after being questioned by Collins said a lot.

“I can confirm that our office’s investigation has expanded to include a comprehensive review of Connecticut Landmarks' processes and performance in complying with charitable restrictions and obligations on assets it holds and manages,” said the statement from Jaclyn M. Severance, director of communications for the office.

While perhaps lacking in drama, the statement essentially says investigators are looking at all the issues involving Connecticut Landmarks, going where the evidence leads it.

It certainly needs to do this. Outside of its own board of directors, the attorney general’s office is the only check on how a nonprofit such as Connecticut Landmarks manages the properties donated into its care.

Initially the attorney general’s review had a narrow scope, one sought by Connecticut Landmarks itself. The organization wanted to know whether it had the option of selling or otherwise transferring the 18th-century Forge Farm in Stonington to a new owner, while retaining all or some portion of the $1.4 million endowment set aside for the property’s care.

That assessment expanded dramatically to first include whether Connecticut Landmarks was meeting its obligations to maintain Forge Farm and then, as last week’s statement showed, to “a comprehensive review” of all “processes and performance.”

In a Feb. 21 meeting with the editorial board, Landmarks Executive Director Sheryl Hack and Board of Trustees Chairman Frederick C. Copeland Jr. said the potential divestiture of the Forge Farm property was off the table. Landmarks, they said, will begin looking for a tenant and would make property repairs to the house, vacant for more than a year. Our earlier editorial welcomed that commitment.

But as Collins has reported, there are many concerns beyond what happens to Forge Farm.

The 1738 Palmer-Warner House and the 1816 Amasa Day House, both in East Haddam, have sat vacant far longer. Collins found evidence of significant maintenance issues, particularly at the Amasa Day House and its associated carriage house.

Collins’ reporting also raises significant concerns about the protection and management of valuable artifacts associated with these properties.

While Jepsen, who after two four-year terms is not seeking re-election in 2018, has not operated as a headline grabber, he had a particular reason for staying low profile in the current matter. Because of his past fundraising efforts on behalf of Landmarks, Jepsen has properly recused himself from the review of its operations, leaving it to top staff.

Where might this lead?

The probe should result in the release of a comprehensive report that outlines what issues the Office of the Attorney General examined and what the investigation found.

Potentially, it could lead to a stipulated agreement under which Connecticut Landmarks agrees to restore any funds misdirected from one property to another and outlines the steps that it must take to assure the nonprofit is meeting its preservationist responsibilities for all its properties.

Additionally, state lawmakers could explore legislation that would provide additional safeguards making sure properties and associated trusts bequeathed to preservationist organizations are used as intended.

Or maybe the attorney general’s office will find little or nothing wrong, though that possibility grows more remote with each passing revelation.

In any event, the public should welcome the probe and the reporting that led to it. Needed next are answers.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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