Saturday, July 11, 2009


Rell Job Reversal Perplexes Top Pick
By JON LENDER | Courant Staff Writer
July 6, 2008
Greg Grew of Woodbury was driving to Stamford on April 1 for lunch with a friend to celebrate his pending appointment by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to the key post of state building inspector.
Then his cellphone rang.
It was state Public Safety Commissioner John Danaher, who delivered the jolting news that Rell's office had reconsidered: Grew — a successful architect and business owner who holds the record for the highest score ever on the Connecticut building officials' certification exam — was out.
It's still a mystery to Grew three months later — and to leaders of professional groups who say an injustice was done to a man who embodies the very ethics and professionalism that Rell has espoused as hallmarks of her administration.
Rell's office said it pulled the plug because of concerns over Grew's level of debt.
"I don't believe that for a minute," Grew said, because he owns real estate worth $1.6 million — three times what he's borrowed.
The irony of Rell's stated caution is that it led to an unusually messy misstep with a top gubernatorial appointment — casting an unfavorable light not only on Grew, but also on the candidate Rell finally appointed last month.
Lisa R. Humble, a longtime state employee who had worked most recently as an architect in the Department of Public Works, has been referred to in Rell's office as the "number two candidate." In addition, some observers speculate openly that Humble, an architectural graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, was picked because Rell wanted to appoint a woman, something the governor's legal counsel denies.
Humble did not return calls.
Bad News
By the time Danaher delivered the bad news, Grew had spent about 80 hours of unpaid time in March touring the state and being introduced to groups of builders, designers and building officials by the retiring building inspector, Christopher Laux.
A major basis for that introductory tour was a Feb. 28 letter Danaher wrote to his employees, announcing that in anticipation of Laux's March 31 retirement, "we embarked upon a search for an individual who could carry out the challenging and critical functions of the State Building Inspector. That search having been concluded, the Honorable M. Jodi Rell ... has decided to appoint Milton Gregory 'Greg' Grew. ..."
Danaher added: "We are fortunate to have permission to bring Mr. Grew onboard before the effective date of Christopher's retirement so that there will be an overlap" for a transition.
That announcement, and the subsequent month of introductions, made Danaher's April 1 phone call all the more unexpected to Grew. Danaher gave no explanation on the phone, but said Grew should call Rell's legal counsel, Anna Ficeto.
The Explanation
It took 24 hours for Ficeto to call back, Grew said, and she told him that "there was 'nothing of concern' in my background check but that some individuals had concerns about my 'debt ratio.'"
"I expressed astonishment and disbelief with that analysis," Grew said. "I told her I was very disappointed that no one even called me to inform me of their concerns, and get my feedback or more complete financial information."
He sent her an e-mail saying that credit-rating agencies' numbers assigned to him and his wife were very favorable — 780 and 730. He said some of his $550,000 in debt, which also includes his home mortgage, was on rental property whose income covered any loan payments. He owns other properties free and clear.
But Ficeto responded in an April 2 e-mail: "[T]he decision stands and we're going with the number two candidate. I'm sorry this didn't work out."
Interviewed last week, Ficeto said there's no set debt-ratio standard. "The bottom line is it's the governor's appointee, and there has to be a level of comfort. ... We basically looked at the documents and we just didn't have that comfort level. ... She has to feel comfortable. ... This isn't a perfect science.
"Part of the problem, to be honest, is we deviated from our own process," Ficeto said, referring to the public safety department's decision to bring Grew in early — albeit without pay. "We never make an announcement of a candidate until we've done a complete background" check.
Did that mean that Danaher was wrong to write the Feb. 28 announcement letter? Ficeto said she had been unaware of the letter, but added, "I don't want to say he made a mistake."
One of the debts of concern was $42,000 on Grew's credit cards, Ficeto said. Grew responded that if someone had asked, he would have told them that he was using zero-percent credit card offers rather than the home-equity line he could have carried the debt on.
"That just shows an ignorance of how you do business," he said. "It's called using other people's money."
Ficeto called it "odd" that Grew doesn't have a degree from a four-year college even though he had studied at three community or technical colleges. Grew said he had disclosed that fact from the moment he was recruited by the Department of Public Safety to apply. He said a four-year degree was not required when he got his architect's license in Connecticut. Actual design experience was factored in.
Asked why there was concern about a four-year degree when Grew has been licensed in six states and runs a successful architectural business, Ficeto said it was just part of "the whole package."
Ficeto noted that Grew's federal corporate tax return showed $535,000 in gross receipts for his Woodbury-based business, and "one of the questions" for any prospective employee is "can you live with the salary that we are going to give you? ... We don't want anyone to be susceptible to corruption.
"Our concern is: How are you going to pay all this debt when you are taking a substantial pay cut?" Ficeto said.
But Grew said that's another misinterpretation of basic business principles by Rell's office. He said he wouldn't have been taking a substantial pay cut: After paying his seven employees' wages, consultants and other costs out of his firm's gross receipts, he said his own income was $122,000 — as also shown on his IRS forms. His pay as state building inspector would have been $118,000, and the state would have provided family health benefits he now pays for himself.
Grew said he had been arranging to hand the business to others — including his father, also an architect — in anticipation of starting the state job in April. He said he lost some business because of that.
He had thought briefly of legal action but said he is not seriously considering it now.
"I think this was handled very poorly by the governor's office," said Brian Platz, president of the Connecticut Building Officials Association.
Platz speculated that Rell simply decided to appoint another woman to a top post. "I don't know what the real reason is," he said, but he doesn't buy the "debt ratio" claim.
Ficeto denied that gender preference played a role.
The head of another industry group said Rell and her aides seem to misunderstand how businesses operate.
"Debt ... in real estate, with an appreciating asset ... is a good business model," said Bill Ethier, chief executive officer for the Home Builders Association of Connecticut.
"If I owned a million and a half dollars worth of property, and I only had a half-a-million dollars' mortgage on it, I'd be thrilled," said Laux, who had recommended Grew.
Recruited For Indignity
Grew, 47, married for 22 years with two daughters, was perfectly happy as an architect and building contractor, and never thought of a state post.
But then, one night last November, Grew was attending a continuing-education class in Norwalk for building officials. The teacher was Laux, who asked him, "Have you ever thought of becoming the state building inspector?"
Laux said last week that he'd spent 10 years building up standards of professionalism at the office in the Department of Public Safety complex in Middletown, and Grew would have been a "perfect" successor to maintain those standards.
Grew possesses a rare combination of extensive experience in the business end of design and construction, a detailed understanding of code requirements as a state-certified building official and exceptional communication skills, Laux said.
The state inspector's office has important powers — one of which is ruling on safety code disputes between builders and municipal inspectors. Laux has made news by addressing safety and fire code violations in dormitories and other buildings at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.
Laux and Grew both live in Woodbury, but say they did not know each other well until they had professional dealings during Laux's tenure as the state building inspector. Laux said that years ago, Grew "got the highest score in the history of the state" — a 99 — on the state test required for certification as a local building official.
Grew was the first choice of four candidates interviewed by a panel that included Danaher. Grew and Rell met Feb. 26 for about 45 minutes, and she told him that the job was his, pending a background check.
Platz scoffed at the idea that the debt incurred in the course of Grew's successful business could lead him astray as a public official. "You're either an honest person or you are not," he said.
"They dragged him around the state and introduced him ... as the next state building inspector. What have they done to this poor man's career?"
Contact Jon Lender at
Over 120 comments were left by readers of the online article:
Lead Editorial the following Wednesday:
A Raw Deal
July 9, 2008
If you're thinking of serving in state government, attend the tale of Greg Grew.
Mr. Grew, a successful architect and businessman from Woodbury, was tapped last winter to be the state building inspector. Mr. Grew had once gotten the highest score ever on the state's building official certification exam and was well-respected in the industry. He seemed a perfect choice.
On Feb. 28, Public Safety Commissioner John Danaher told his employees in a letter that Gov. M. Jodi Rell had decided to pick Mr. Grew for the job, and that he would be brought on early for a transition before his predecessor's retirement at the end of March.
With the job seemingly in hand, Mr. Grew began handing his real estate business to others and touring the state to meet builders, designers and other building officials. But on April 1, as The Courant's Jon Lender reported on Sunday, Mr. Danaher called Mr. Grew and told him the job offer was being withdrawn.
Why? It's still not clear. A successful small-business owner with a reputation for probity, a family man who is an elder at his church, would seem to be an ideal candidate. When pushed for an explanation, Anna Ficeto, Mrs. Rell's counsel, said there was some concern about his level of debt. This doesn't wash: Mr. Grew had borrowed $550,000 but owned property worth $1.6 million.
Ms. Ficeto said in an interview with The Courant that Mr. Grew's federal corporate tax return showed $535,000 in gross receipts for his business, and so there was a question about whether he could live and pay his debts on the state salary of $118,000. But as Mr. Grew said, this was not a pay cut. His tax returns showed his firm's gross income. After he paid his seven employees and other expenses, his own salary was $122,000. Add the state's benefit package, and he would have been comparably compensated.
So specious are these explanations that we are left wondering if this was mere bungling or if something else was at play. Neither option is particularly attractive. Mr. Grew said he easily could have explained his financial situation if someone had asked, but no one did.
This was not the only curious personnel move orchestrated by Mrs. Rell's office this spring. About a month after Mr. Grew was sandbagged, Mrs. Rell nominated two men, Cicero B. Booker Jr. and Robert W. Neil, to the new Board of Pardons and Paroles, and then withdrew the nominations just before the confirmation hearings.
If the idea is to get top people to serve in state government, this isn't the way to go about it.
Over 20 comments were left by readers of the online editorial:
Weekly column:
This Man Deserves An Apology
Stan Simpson
July 9, 2008
Anna Ficeto, the governor's legal counsel, found it "odd" that the top candidate for the state building inspector's position didn't have a college degree.
It's doubtful her boss M. Jodi Rell concurred — or Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele for that matter — with that assessment.
Neither Rell nor Fedele completed college. Both ended up OK — earning $150,000 and $110,000 a year, respectively. They overcame the lack of a sheepskin by developing business and political skills and substituting common sense for book smarts.
Before he was sworn in two years ago I asked Fedele, founder and CEO of a Stamford-based information technology business, if he was concerned about whether his and Rell's lack of a degree would send an awkward message to the public, young people in particular.
"I didn't finish school because I was very interested and excited to enter the business world," Fedele said. "I got married early and started a family early. I think education is very important. I think education and hard work and good work ethic all come into play. [But] I've met many people in my life in business and in politics and just in the course of life who have more degrees than a thermometer — and quite frankly they just haven't done well. I think education plays a very critical role, but there's a combination of other things that also do — your work ethic, your drive and where you want to go."
Education was actually not the primary excuse used by the governor's office in nixing Greg Grew of Woodbury for the $118,000 state building inspector's job.
Grew registered the highest score ever on a state certification exam for building officials, and his character and integrity are apparently unblemished. The licensed architect and building contractor runs his own design firm and earns about $122,000 a year.
The governor, through Ficeto, expressed concerns about his "debt ratio." Grew's credit card debt of $42,000 raised a red flag, along with his real estate mortgage debt of about $550,000.
Historically there has been corruption in the building business. This week a former engineer for the state Department of Transportation pleaded guilty to bribery as part of a federal corruption investigation.Grew had a ready response for his finances, if only he had been asked. He was using zero-percent credit cards to finance his debt, rather than tap a more expensive home-equity line. He also owns $1.6 million in real estate, including investment properties that generate their own revenue.
Despite the concerns about his debt, Grew's assets are worth three times the total of his liabilities. It shouldn't take a financial whiz or college grad to see that his financial house is in order.
If there were questions about Grew's vulnerability to corruption, then a good background check would have included talking to people who know the man and his character.
Rell's office had no comment Tuesday, two days after The Courant's story on the governor's embarrassingly botched job search. An apology is in order here. Of course, any indication that the process was mishandled could open the door to questions about whether Grew's reputation has also been damaged. And that could lead to a lawsuit.
Maybe this will be a blessing for Grew. He has received numerous calls of support since the miscue became public. "I'm not looking backward, that's for sure," he said Tuesday. "Grew Design is in business."
Good for him.
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