By Gregory B. Hladky
3:04 PM EST, January 15, 2013
Here’s an update on a story we did a couple of years ago about an apparent conflict of interest involving a state legislator and his influence over an agency that directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a non-profit he operated.
The original story concerned whether state Rep. Terry Backer of Stratford should have been sitting as head of an obscure legislative subcommittee with enormous power over the budget of Connecticut’s environmental agency. Backer denied there was any conflict but resigned as subcommittee chief after being questioned by the Advocate.
Late last year, Backer was fined $500 by the Office of State Ethics in connection with the same issue. Ethics officials found he’d violated Connecticut’s Code of Ethics for public officials. Backer told the Connecticut Post that the matter was “an infraction of their rules” and that it was simply a paperwork glitch involving his signature on papers concerning the $148,000-a-year program.
Backer was and still is head of a non-profit agency called Soundkeeper Inc., an environmental watchdog group that had as its largest source of income federal grants that were awarded by that same state environmental agency.
Over a six year period, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection directed more than $1.3 million in federal grants to operate boats that pumped out and collected sewage from other boats so the stuff wouldn’t be dumped in Connecticut harbors or Long Island Sound.
As head of Soundkeeper Inc., Backer was being paid more than $100,000 a year. At various times, both Backer’s wife and son were also employed by his non-profit.
Backer, who was for years co-chairman of the legislature’s Environment Committee, was first elected to the General Assembly in 1992 and last November (two days before the agreement with the Office of State Ethics took effect) was reelected to the legislature.
“The last thing I want is for anyone to think I have a conflict,” Backer told the Advocate in 2010 after being questioned about the relationships between his actions as a lawmaker, his non-profit, and the grant money it was being awarded.
According to the consent order signed by ethics officials and Backer, his signature on documents asking for that grant money violated the state code that forbids public officials from appearing before or lobbying state agencies. The intent of the code is to prevent even the appearance that a legislator or other state official is using his or her position to benefit themselves, according to ethics officials.
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