HARTFORD, Conn. — Connecticut lawmakers were urged Tuesday to support legislation that would prevent the mixing of money intended help first responders, educators and staff emotionally impacted by the Sandy Hook shooting with any other funds.
The bill comes after a state audit last year found tens of thousands of dollars in philanthropic contributions went missing from a labor organization charity overseeing the fund and were mixed with other money. Various investigations are underway, and the Connecticut AFL-CIO, which is affiliated with the United Labor Agency charity, has said the missing funds were replenished. But lawmakers said more needs to be done to ensure the money for workers still in need of help is properly spent.
The Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Program was created by the General Assembly in the aftermath of the mass school shooting to help replenish lost wages for union and non-union workers as they dealt emotionally with the tragedy that left 26 dead, including 20 children. The ULA eventually became responsible for managing and disbursing the remaining funds.
“We want to make it right. This bill makes it right,” Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, told members of the Public Safety and Security Committee during a public hearing.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said the top Republican and Democratic leaders of the General Assembly all support the legislation, which also extends the lifespan of the program indefinitely. They said at least one state trooper is currently seeking benefits from the fund.
Both Klarides and Bolinsky last year requested an audit after Bolinsky had been tipped off that two first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder did not receive the benefits they were eligible to receive, although the audit verified that no worker, union or non-union was ultimately denied benefits from the program.
According to the audit, it appears that, “as a result of financial difficulties,” ULA may have used funds from the assistance program “for other purposes.” While union officials have said those funds have since been put back, the lawmakers said they're uncertain if it has all been replaced.
The audit found that ULA’s financial statements showed a fluctuating balance in the fund since 2014 -- including a deficit at one point. As of Sept. 30, 2019, it was $41,977.
Sal Luciano, who is president of both the Connecticut AFL-CIO and the United Labor Agency, said last year the audit report “came as a shock and a disappointment” to him and the rest of the board and promised there would be an investigation.
Besides, the ULA, the state attorney general and state auditors are further looking into the matter. Klarides said she and Bolinsky also forwarded information to the Chief State's Attorney's Office for a possible criminal investigation.
The bill awaits a committee vote.