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Duby's dubious COVID communications contract

Gov. Ned Lamont has been largely judicious in the use of the emergency powers granted him to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes the administration’s decision to use those powers to steer a contract to a public-relations firm with strong Democratic Party connections all the more puzzling and troubling.

In late December, with many folks distracted by the holidays, the administration announced it had entered into a three-month, $250,000 contract with McDowell Communications to handle communications about the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. The state is using federal COVID-relief funds to pay for the work.

Lamont used his emergency powers to waive the normal competitive bid process and award the contract to the company directed by Duby McDowell, well known in Democratic circles and a campaign contributor. She also co-hosts WFSB's "Face the State" program.

It is all well and good to waive bid procedures to rush protective equipment to first responders and health personnel, or to quickly set up a testing site, but using emergency authority for a communications consulting deal — and a questionable one at that — looks like an abuse of that authority.

As noted by Jon Lender of the Hartford Courant, who did some great reporting on the questionable deal, about 40 employees in the executive branch are well paid to provide communications to the public.

Making things more interesting is that McDowell’s former partner at McDowell Jewett — Steve Jewett —“served as the (Lamont) campaign’s senior advisor and chief strategist,” according to a company posting issued in 2018 after Lamont’s victory.

And, as The Courant reported, Maura Fitzgerald, a senior vice president with McDowell, directed media operations for Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal during his 2010 campaign and then, after his victory, got a job as a deputy district director. In 2016, Fitzgerald took the job of director of communications for the state Department of Public Health, leaving in 2019 to join the public relations group.

Acting state health Commissioner Deidre Gifford points to Fitzgerald’s experience in health communications as why McDowell Communications is a good fit. The growing demand to get information to the public drove the decision to hire an outside firm, she said.

Well, from this vantage point, it looks unnecessary and inappropriate. After this contract runs out, if at all possible return the responsibility to state workers. If private help is absolutely needed, put it out to bid.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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