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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Legislators move to fund watchdog agency some say is being neutered by Lamont

    Southeastern Connecticut legislators are introducing a bill meant to take the state Contracting Standards Board out from under Executive Branch control and into the hands of the Legislative Branch.

    Supporters say it’s a way to make sure the watchdog agency, which primarily keeps its eye on the Executive Branch, keeps its teeth. The board currently is included in the Executive Branch’s budget.

    State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the bill would move the board to the legislative side of the budget and fully fund it. The bill will be taken up by the Appropriations Committee.

    Aside from Osten, the bill is being introduced by Reps. Christine Conley, D-Groton; Anthony Nolan, D-New London; Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, and Toni Walker, D-New Haven.

    According to its summary, the bill would “place the Contract Standards Board under Legislative Management with its powers intact. All quasi-public agencies also come under the purview of this board. It will be fully funded and staffed. The staff hiring must be completed by September 1, 2022.”

    Osten said she’s introducing this bill so that the Executive Branch can’t cut the board’s budget.

    The move follows Gov. Ned Lamont's budget proposal to allocate $218,770 to the Auditors of Public Accounts for three additional auditors, instead of the additional $467,055 needed to fully staff the Contracting Standards Board. The board, in addition to an executive director and intern, is seeking to fund five more positions: a chief procurement officer, staff attorney, accounts examiner, research analyst and trainer.

    The funding for the Contracting Standards Board was a topic of a public hearing Thursday before the Appropriations Committee, where board Chairman Lawrence Fox reiterated his stance that the lack of funding for staff stifles the important work of the volunteer board.

    “People see us as a duplication,” Fox said. “We don’t do any procurement. That’s not our role. It was never intended to be our role. We monitor. We hold accountable the agencies that do procurement. We need an effective staff to look at what’s going on.”

    While the state legislature approved the extra funding for the new board staff positions last year, the funding for 2022 and 2023 later was rescinded.

    A statement from the governor’s office on Thursday reiterated Lamont’s stance that his proposal to hire three “new non-partisan state auditors,” would strengthen oversight of state contracts. The board additionally would have new authority to refer any contract or procurement to those auditors, the statement said.

    “They’re basically saying to the board ‘don’t do investigations,’” Fox said at Thursday’s hearing. “They’re really saying ‘No, no, no, just turn it over to the auditors.’ They don’t want the oversight.”

    State Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said the board and auditors serve two different functions. “One occurs on the front end and the other occurs on the back end. In terms of an audit, it tells you what happened,” he said.

    Contracting Standards Board Executive Director Davis Guay further explained the difference between the board and the auditors, saying “the auditors can’t make the Executive Branch do something. We are an Executive Branch agency with powers to make other agencies do something.”

    “Funding three more auditors, it does nothing for the board at all,” Guay added.

    Fox said recent news of an investigation surrounding the state Department of Administrative Services and Office of Policy and Management was "disturbing."

    A federal grand jury has issued a subpoena for documents related to Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis, the former deputy director of OPM, who was assigned to oversee the Connecticut Port Authority’s $235 million State Pier improvement project and also led the state’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review. The FBI is seeking documents related to school construction projects, among other things.

    Fox referred to a past report by the board that showed 70% of service contracts, “a couple of billion dollars of contracts,” were sole sourced and not competitively bid, which can be done with a state waiver.

    “OPM was giving out waivers like chocolate candy bars on Halloween,” Fox said. “It’s expensive. It discriminates against minority and women contractors because when you sole source they never get in the game. There are all kinds of problems with it. I don’t doubt that all of them had the proper sign-off to get the sole source.”

    Fox said best practices in other states is use of a centralized agency that performs procurement and contracting, as opposed to individual agencies.

    “It is unfortunate ... that actually the emerging allegations that are going on in the news right now are not at the small contracting agencies,” Fox said. “They’re actually at the agencies at the top of the procurement and contracting process, both DAS and OPM. And that’s very distressing and should be of great concern to us because they should be providing guidance to the other agencies.”

    “What’s particularly saddening to me and I think to other members of the board is that we actually have the tools in the law that, had we implemented those tools, could have prevented what we’re going through today,” Fox said. “We just don’t have the staff.”

    The board recently completed an investigation into the Connecticut Port Authority. Parts of the board’s report, which criticized past practices of the port authority, were contested by the authority.

    Fox said he was disturbed by some of the public comments made in the fall by Jeff Beckham, a member of the port authority’s board and undersecretary for legislative affairs in the Office of Policy and Management. Beckham commented at a port authority meeting in September that “we don’t actually think they (the Contracting Standards Board) need to exist and we will continue to have that posture.”

    “In view of the allegations going on right now that are actually centered at OPM," Fox said, "it’s scary to me and it should be scary to all of us.”

    s.spinella@theday.com

    g.smith@theday.com

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