Attorney general recuses himself from Connecticut Landmarks investigation

Attorney General George Jepsen, who personally hosted a $250-a-head fundraiser for Connecticut Landmarks at his Hartford home in 2013, has recused himself from an ongoing investigation by his office into the historic preservation society's Forge Farm in Stonington.

Jepsen, whose office has authority over the use of charitable gifts, issued the statement recusing himself Tuesday, after his office was asked about the Landmarks fundraiser that he and his wife hosted.

He said he wants to "avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest."

"Over my time serving as attorney general, I have hosted many fundraisers and events at my home for political candidates as well as nonprofit and charitable organizations," Jepsen said in the statement. "Historic preservation has always been an area of special interest to me, and I have in the past supported Connecticut Landmarks by hosting events supporting them in my home and intend to do so in the future as well."

A spokesman for the attorney general first confirmed an investigation of Forge Farm after I wrote that the organization has apparently been spending money from an endowment left for its care, while leaving the house neglected and empty for more than a year.

The endowment was $1,034,954 at the end of March 2009, according to Landmarks correspondence from the time and is about $1.5 million today, according to Frederick C. Copeland Jr., chairman of the organization's board of trustees. The organization also collected rent of $1,800 a month from tenant Terra Firma Farm Inc. for much of the period between 2009 and 2016, when the tenants left after citing the disrepair of the house.

The modest growth in the endowment fund belies the roaring stock market during the period and its impact on investment funds.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general confirmed Feb. 9, when I asked about it, that Landmarks has asked for an opinion about whether it would be able to sell the property and keep its endowment. That inquiry also includes an "investigation as to whether there has been appropriate use of the endowment as a restricted charitable gift," said Jaclyn Severance, the spokeswoman.

I have since asked whether the attorney general would be looking at Landmarks' Palmer-Warner house in East Haddam and its endowment. Landmarks received a substantial endowment by the donor of the 1738 house, where there are signs of neglect, including a collapsing barn, and the organization has never opened it regularly to the public despite a specific direction to do so in the 2005 bequest.

Severance said Tuesday information about the house included in a Feb. 15 column still is being reviewed and no decision has been made about whether to investigate the matter.

I first learned about the 2013 fundraiser at the attorney general's house from a former Landmarks employee, who also said other employees have been reluctant to lodge complaints with the attorney general because they believe he is friends with Sheryl Hack, executive director of Landmarks.

The attorney general did not answer in his statement Tuesday a specific question about whether he is friends with Hack.

He did say his office's investigation "into Connecticut Landmarks' handling charitable assets ... has been assigned to a skilled, experienced assistant attorney general in our charities unit and is being overseen by the head of our Special Litigation Department ... "

It will ultimately be overseen by Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn, he said.

"I have every confidence the investigation will be undertaken with all necessary due diligence to ensure compliance with all applicable state charitable law under their capable supervision," he said.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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