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State Contracting Standards Board reviewing Mystic Oral School, Port Authority complaints

The State Contracting Standards Board is seeking answers regarding complaints related to two major projects in the region: the proposed redevelopment of the Mystic Oral School and the transformation of State Pier in New London.

The board, whose mission is "to require that state contracting and procurement requirements are understood and carried out in a manner that is open, cost effective, efficient and consistent with State and Federal statutes, rules and regulations," discussed updates on both issues at its meeting Friday.

The board is reviewing whether it has the authority to potentially disqualify Jeffrey Respler, who is proposing to redevelop the state-owned Mystic Education Center, for a period of time from "bidding on, applying for or participating as a contractor or subcontractor, under contracts with the state."

Executive Director David Guay said he is working with the Office of the Attorney General to determine whether or not the board has jurisdiction over the matter. No decisions have been made yet.

At last month's meeting, the board discussed the possibility of considering disqualification, due to a guilty plea by Respler in the state of New York. According to a news release from The City of New York Department of Investigation, Respler, as the owner of a plumbing company, pleaded guilty in 2004 to four counts of fifth-degree conspiracy, a Class A misdemeanor.

"Now before we move down that road, I want to make sure that we do this right, proper and lawful so I am currently discussing all of the matters involved with this review with the Office of the Attorney General," Guay said at Friday's meeting. He expects to have answers within a week. 

Guay told The Day that he could not comment on which contracts would be affected if the disqualification occurred because that is part of his review.

Respler has signed a purchase and sale agreement, which was extended to November 2022, with the state to buy the Mystic Education Center property for $1, providing criteria are met. He also had a lease for maintenance of the property, which ended in June.

Respler was chosen as the developer for the site after responding to a request for proposals. But the Town of Groton's Planning and Zoning Commission opposes the scale and density of the mixed-use development he has proposed.

State statute outlines a process in which after "reasonable notice and hearing and consultation with the relevant state contracting agency and the Attorney General," the State Contracting Standards Board, acting through a three-person subcommittee, "may disqualify any contractor, bidder or proposer, for a period of not more than five years, from bidding on, applying for or participating, as a contractor or subcontractor under, contracts of the state."

The process calls for the subcommittee to recommend, within 60 days of a hearing, whether or not it believes disqualification is warranted and for how long. If the subcommittee recommends disqualification, the contractor then would have 30 days to respond, and the board then has 30 days to either move forward with the recommendation, reject it or revise it.

Potential causes for disqualification include being convicted of, pleading guilty or admitting to "the violation of any state or federal law for embezzlement, theft, forgery, bribery, falsification or destruction of records, receiving stolen property or any other offense indicating a lack of business integrity or business honesty which affects responsibility as a state contractor."

The State Contracting Standards Board received an initial complaint on June 16 from Kevin Blacker of Noank requesting that the board review the contract and lease that the state entered into with Respler Homes. Blacker also provided a YouTube video.

"Respler was given $66,224/year from cellphone tower leases to prevent vandalism," Blacker wrote. "He obviously wasn't preventing vandalism as this video and others I have prove." The video showed vandalism at the property containing a racist slur and an obscenity.

Blacker and Mystic resident Van Brown both spoke about the Mystic Oral School during public comment at Friday's meeting.

State Department of Administrative Services spokesperson Lora Rae Anderson had said in June that Respler and the department came to a "mutual agreement not to renew" the 18-month lease after it expired. Ray Kehrhahn, consultant for Respler Homes, said the company did not push renewing the lease because it had accomplished what it needed to do, such as securing buildings and installing security cameras, on the long-vandalized property.

Anderson said Friday that "while the issues are generally related, the board's review was not a factor in our decision."

Separate from any state documents, the Town of Groton and Respler Homes in 2020 signed a development agreement.

Groton and Respler are in the "good faith negotiations" phase as they attempt to resolve a dispute over each other's responsibilities in the agreement, Town Manager John Burt said.

Connecticut Port Authority

Meanwhile, the State Contracting Standards Board plans to set up a meeting with the Connecticut Port Authority as part of an ongoing review of complaints.

State Contracting Standards Board member Lauren Gauthier — who also is a Groton Representative Town Meeting member — updated the board on Friday that she has received more documents related to the review of the port authority. For example, she has received documents, including an RFP response from a subsidiary of consultant Seabury Capital — the firm hired to, among other things, find an operator for State Pier in New London.

She said there still are items that the board needs, and one new document tends to lead to a question about a preceding or a follow-up document. A working group is putting together a list of questions and materials to request and speak to the port authority about.

"It's a good deal of information that still needs to be gone through, and I think a conversation with members of the port authority would be productive to help parse some of this out," Gauthier added.

State Contracting Standards Board Chairman Lawrence Fox said he heard some concerns expressed at a recent Connecticut Port Authority meeting about the standards board and that the board hasn't spoken to the port authority.

Fox explained that after the board received complaints about issues involving the port authority awhile ago, the board formed a working group and started reaching out to the complainants. The board planned to reach out to the CPA, but wanted to first see if the board had authority and suspended its investigation while seeking the opinion. The attorney general then issued a formal opinion that the board has very limited authority over quasi-public agencies, including the port authority.

The board went to the legislature and advocated for authority over quasi-public agencies, and the legislature decided that the port authority falls under the board's authority as a contracting agency. That decision became effective shortly before July 1.

"Once we found out for sure that we had the authority, we reassembled our work group and we’ve been collecting information, making information requests," he said. He offered assurances that the board has every intention of speaking with the port authority.  

The board wants to be in the position to make any recommendations — if it has any — in a timely manner for the upcoming legislative session, he said.

The port authority released a statement by email, saying it "looks forward to our future first meeting with the State Contracting Standards Board (SCSB) to better understand the context of their prior requests for information."

"Despite requests for documents from SCSB late last year and in mid-September, we have not yet been engaged by SCSB in any discussion. The Authority has continued to provide them with all the information requested," the statement continued. "In our response to their most recent information request, we noted that it would be helpful to also review our Procurement Policies and Procedures as a starting point. It is our understanding that this is a foundational role that SCSB now has responsibility to undertake and a necessary precondition to provide context to assess individual procurements. We look forward to working collaboratively with SCSB to ensure the Authority's policies meet state standards."

k.drelich@theday.com

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