CHRIS POWELL: Treasurer's ads should have exposed the ripoff he runs

Published on Saturday, 8 January 2022 21:05

Connecticut occasionally sees state Treasurer Shawn T. Wooden touting state government's college savings program in television commercials with two young actors impersonating his sons. Since the commercials are financed by a contractor that helps run the program for the treasurer's office, this is essentially public money. As the commercials portray Wooden as a conscientious father as much as they tout the savings program, they are really state-financed political ads, signifying the treasurer's exploitation of his office.

But last week Wooden was nowhere to be seen as the Connecticut Mirror reported that the state program he supervises to return unclaimed financial property to state residents has been mostly ripping them off instead.

The Mirror's Andrew Brown and Kasturi Pananjady found that in the last 20 years the treasurer's program has collected $2.3 billion in unclaimed financial property from banks, insurance companies, and the like but has returned only 37% to its rightful owners. State government kept more than $1.5 billion of the unclaimed property.

State government doesn't hold on to most of the unclaimed assets it seizes. Instead it liquidates them, spends the money, and enters a liability on its books in case the rightful owners turn up and have to be paid.

That's better than letting financial institutions keep the unclaimed property. But the Mirror found that the public list maintained by the treasurer's office to publicize unclaimed property and its owners does not include the properties worth less than $50. The Mirror also found that the treasurer's office hardly advertises the list in the first place, unlike the college savings program in whose commercials the treasurer stars.

Wooden wouldn't speak to the Mirror about the rip-off he supervises, instead referring questions to staff members, who deepened the scandal by pointing out that state law actually prohibits publicizing the smaller unclaimed properties, making their recovery almost impossible.

Maybe the law does that because, as the Mirror reported, much of the money from the unclaimed property – $219 million – has been spent financing political campaigns.

While Wooden didn't want to answer for the ripoff, he can't claim to have been unaware of it. The Mirror reported that the treasurer's annual report to the General Assembly boasts of the money raised from the unclaimed property program for state government to spend.

A more public-spirited officeholder might have exposed the ripoff before journalism did, thereby embarrassing the legislature and the governor into ending the concealment of the smaller unclaimed properties and requiring more aggressive efforts to find owners. Such public-spiritedness would have done more for the public's regard for Wooden than his sappy college savings plan commercials.

But such public-spiritedness would have engendered resentment from Connecticut's political establishment -- of which Wooden now has been exposed as perhaps its most cynical member.

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TONG KEEPS PILING ON: But giving Wooden a close run is Attorney General William Tong, who continues to obstruct the proposed interstate settlement of the bankruptcy of pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma, maker of the infamous painkiller OxyContin. The settlement would liquidate the company to raise maybe $4 billion for the benefit of drug rehabilitation programs and the estates of those who overdosed on the drug.

Tong argues that the settlement would let the company's founders, the Sackler family, keep too much of the wealth they gained from the company, and maybe it would. But even if all the Sacklers are horrible people, the clamor against them is demagogic. For the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for general use in 1995 and thousands of doctors went on to prescribe it, many knowing the risks it poses.

So where are Tong's lawsuits against the FDA and those doctors? Without them OxyContin never would have escaped the laboratory and no one would have gotten addicted to it or died from an overdose.

But suing the FDA for what it did during a national administration run by Tong's party and suing thousands of doctors would cause political problems, even as railing against drug companies is always popular.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Saturday, 8 January 2022 21:05. Updated: Saturday, 8 January 2022 21:08.