James Mindek, a Department of Education administrator disciplined last year after he helped his son and a coworker’s daughter get temporary state jobs, grimaced with an “oh, c’mon” expression as Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell recounted why she imposed a 60-day unpaid suspension that cost him $24,000 in salary.
“There was a use, and an abuse, and really a distortion and a corruption, of our state contracting processes in order to provide employment to the children of a director and a supervisor in our department,” Wentzell testified Monday to the state Employees’ Review Board in the state office building at 450 Columbus Blvd. in Hartford.
She was the final witness in an extraordinarily long series of hearings since May by the three-member administrative panel that is weighing Mindek’s appeal for relief that’s based on his claim that he was made the fall guy for actions that were approved by superiors and fellow managers.
“I take my responsibility very seriously in the stewardship of the resources of our state, and I was very upset to learn that our processes had been corrupted in a way that advantaged the children of employees,” Wentzell said under questioning from the state Office of Labor Relations’ attorney, Thomas Austin, who’s defending the state’s action against Mindek.
However, Wentzell also acknowledged — under questioning from Mindek’s a attorney, Henry Murray — that her top subordinates mishandled matters that led to the children’s hirings through a temporary employment agency in 2015. They failed to uphold standards and practices for ethical contracting and hiring, she said.
“I was shocked to learn that my instructions had not been carried out,” Wentzell said, referring to her order in late 2015 that the two children immediately be terminated after her chief of staff informed her that they were working there.
“I had been very clear [about] what needed to happen,” Wentzell said. “There is no confusion in my mind that that was inappropriate, regardless, even if the processes had been followed” and the fact that “our processes had been corrupted” made it “even worse.”
Despite her instructions, only one of the two children, Joshua Mindek, was dropped by the end of 2015, and the other — Emily Skoczylas, daughter of Mindek’s subordinate, David Skoczylas — was still there as of Aug. 11, 2016, when The Courant filed a Freedom of Information Act request about the hirings. Wentzell learned after the FOIA request that Emily Skoczylas was still there, and within a day she was gone.
On Aug. 20, 2016, The Courant published a story saying that in mid-2015, James Mindek and his subordinate David Skoczylas — both high-ranking IT managers at the education department, paid $144,000 and $124,000 year, respectively — participated in arrangements for their children to be supplied as temporary computer support workers by a state personnel contractor, Tri-Com Consulting Group of Middletown.
Joshua Mindek worked from June 22 to Dec. 18, 2015, and Tri-Com was paid $36,517 for his services during that period. Tri-Com received $87,077 for the services of Emily Skoczylas from May 11, 2015, until Aug. 12, 2016.
David Skoczylas, who unlike Mindek was represented by a state employee union, reached a disciplinary settlement under which he was given a letter of reprimand “for poor judgment in … his role in the recruitment and retention of [his daughter] as IT independent contractor.”
Emails have documented both fathers’ hands in the hirings. “I wanted you to know that Joshua Mindek will be forwarding you his resume,” Mindek wrote on May 29, 2015, in an email to Tri-Com. David Skoczylas emailed his daughter on April 21, 2015, asking her to send her resume to Tri-Com, and to say “that Jim Mindek … asked you to send your resume to him.”
Mindek has testified that he discussed the planned hirings repeatedly in weekly meetings with three fellow administrators including his boss, Kathleen Demsey, the education department’s $152,000-a-year chief financial officer.
Demsey has testified that she only learned Mindek’s son was hired when a department employee reported having seen him in the hallway. But Demsey did sign an official authorization form on June 12, 2015, to “Contract the services of Joshua Mindek as a System Analyst 2 for Help Desk duties.”
Dempsey testified that she didn’t notice the name at a time when “I was insanely busy and I signed multitudes of these.”
However, Gary Pescosolido, the education department’s $115,000-a-year chief of fiscal administration, testified in May that he was with Demsey when she signed the form in June 2015 — and he said he believed he had told her specifically that it was “the … approval for Josh Mindek.” Pescosolido also signed the form.
“They should have said no… and they didn’t,” Wentzell said at Monday’s hearing. “They didn’t do their job.”
She was responding to one of the hearing panel’s members, Matthew Borrelli, who noted the parts that Demsey and Pescosolido had played in the episode and asked, “Can we lay the whole blame on Mr. Mindek?”
“I think a significant portion of the blame belongs to Mr. Mindek,” Wentzell replied.
She said that when she asked Pescosolido, “How could you let this happen?” he “told me that … he had been misled … and pressured by his colleague, Mr. Mindek. … I understand that he said different things to you all, but that’s what he said to me.”
Wentzell said she had given oral reprimands to both Demsey and Pescosolido.
Borrelli guessed that those oral reprimands left no negative record in the personnel files of those “two main people” in this matter, and Wentzell replied, “That’s correct.”
“So they got away, literally, with a slap on the wrist,” Borrelli said, as he pantomimed a gentle wrist-slap.
Mindek served his unpaid suspension between Oct. 18 and Dec. 19 of 2016. In addition, he paid a $1,500 fine in recent months under a written settlement with the Office of State Ethics, which investigated and found “probable cause to believe” that he violated the Code of Ethics section of state statutes.
“Mr. Mindek’s actions have been misunderstood and mischaracterized, and he has been the scapegoat for actions that were fully sanctioned and approved by his superiors,” Murray wrote to the ethics office on Sept. 26.
“[He] was involved in the hiring process to the extent that he both facilitated the scheduling of Josh’s interview and forwarded his resume on to Tri-Com,” Murray wrote. “Both…actions were part of what he did daily to facilitate the hiring of IT contractors at … so he did nothing differently involving his son, but he realizes, in retrospect, that such ministerial duties created an appearance of conflict.”
Wentzell testified that department officials’ interviewing of temporary-job candidates shows how badly hiring and contracting procedures went awry.
She said that when a state agency uses a temporary employment agency, the employment agency — not the state — should interview and select candidates and submit them in response to a state for someone to perform a specific job. The state should simply accept or reject the candidate, she said, and there shouldn’t be any “interaction with the candidates prior to their engagement with the vendor.”
But Mindek has said that process hadn’t been working during a time of urgent need for IT personnel, and he had begun “networking” to find qualified candidates for the temporary agency to supply — with education department officials’ knowledge.
Now, a year after Mindek’s suspension, the review board will begin deliberating whether to modify or reverse his penalty. The panel’s chairman, Victor Schoen, said both sides can submit legal briefs within the next two months, and it could take additional months after that to render a decision.
One reason that things could stretch out further is a complication that arose Monday. Murray asked the panel to look at a March 9, 2016 email memo between two education department lawyers that he said may contain statements that could reflect on the credibility of witnesses. But Austin objected, claiming that it’s protected by attorney-client privilege.
The panel agreed to view the document privately — “in camera,” as it’s called — and Austin objected to that, too. He said that he would ask the state attorney general to get a judge to intervene. Schoen said the panel would hold off on that for the moment, and urged the two sides to continue talks toward reaching a settlement.
The Courant filed an FOIA request later Monday with Wentzell and her communications director, Peter Yazbak, for the March 9, 2016 email in question. Yazbak said Wednesday that the department won’t release it.
“The memo you requested is from one lawyer to another in [the education department], prepared in connection with determining appropriate legal advice and in anticipation of possible legal proceedings,” he wrote in an email. “[O]ur position is that the memo is protected from disclosure by law pursuant to the Attorney-Client Privilege and the Attorney Work Product doctrine.”
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at [email protected], 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on [email protected]