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Foley may have point about cozy Global deal

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published September 22. 2013 4:00AM

Did Roy Occhiogrosso's firm get special preference when his Global Strategy Group competed for and landed a lucrative state contract to promote the new health insurance exchange? There is no way of knowing for sure, and that's a problem. That's the point that former and potentially future Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley appears to be trying to make, though not terribly effectively.

Of all the insinuations about alleged ethical misconduct by the administration that Foley made against the Malloy administration in a bizarre Face the State interview on WFSB a week ago, the Global Strategy contract appears to at least raise some reasonable issues about how government works and if protections against special treatment for connected people is adequate.

The way Foley decided to introduce the topic and his other allegations was politically inept. As the candidate, you let someone else raise the charges of potential impropriety then, if they get traction, react to them. Foley just dived in with scant evidence and admissions he wasn't sure what was true, instantly hurting his credibility.

Occhiogrosso, who managed Dannel P.Malloy's successful run for governor in 2010 and became the top advisor in his administration, left after the first two years of Malloy's term to return to the private sector and Global Strategy, a public relations firm. When commentary writers in the state largely buried Foley for his performance, Occhiogrosso had to be laughing.

But about that contract.

Global Strategies contested for the contract just a few months after Occhiogrosso, now managing director at Global, left the administration. Foley says that stinks. No one, he argues, should be able to go from being the governor's right-hand man to almost immediately landing state contracts.

Sounds reasonable.

But there appears nothing illegal about how this played out. State ethics laws prohibit Occhiogrosso from lobbying the governor's office on behalf of his company and clients, but there is no law prohibiting Occhiogrosso's firm from seeking state business. Nothing has surfaced suggesting Occhiogrosso sought any special treatment for Global or that the governor and his office became involved in the selection process. This is not a large contract by state standards, running through March 2014 and worth about $180,000.

Interestingly, as a quasi-public entity with its own bylaws, the new health insurance exchange - access health CT - could have just picked a firm to run its public relations campaign. But just handing the business to Global certainly would not have looked good. Instead it invited three firms to submit proposals - Global, Sullivan & LaShane, the powerful and influential Hartford lobbying firm, and CJ Public Relations, which has an office in Farmington.

The goal of the PR campaign is to help the public learn, understand and utilize the access health CT exchange, which will allow individuals needing health insurance to choose among competing plans. Under the Affordable Care Act everyone has to have health insurance or pay a penalty tax. Funding for the exchange, and the public relations campaign, is coming from the federal government.

The competitors were scored on their proposed fees, communication ability, qualifications and the strength of their presentations.

Doing the evaluation was the CEO of the exchange, Kevin Counihan, a former Cigna insurance executive appointed by Malloy, Jason Madrak, the chief marketing officer and a former Aetna executive, and Kathleen Tallarita, the government and public affairs outreach manager for the exchange. A Democrat, Tallarita spent 14 years as the state representative from Enfield before losing a 2012 primary.

Global won handily, awarded a score of 261 to 211 for Sullivan & LaShane and 164 for CJ Public. It will receive $20,000 monthly for the PR work.

But given the subjective nature of the scoring, is there any way to say for sure the evaluators were not influenced by the fact one of the firms included among its executives a man extremely close to the governor? Should Global have been invited to compete to begin with?

"They shouldn't have been allowed to compete. It's too cozy. It wouldn't happen if I was governor," Foley told me.

But Occhiogrosso argues that the process proved that Global was the most qualified and that it would be a disservice to both the state and businesses not to allow qualified firms to compete for state work simply because they include employees with government experience.

"If this was a no-bid contract, then perhaps we'd have a problem. But we competed like everyone else in an open and fair process," Occhiogrosso said when I called him.

But know what, Foley's right. Legal or not, it doesn't look good. Whether the rules should change is a legitimate campaign issue for Foley to raise. But he sure could do a better job of making his case.

Perhaps he needs a good PR firm.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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