Log In


Reset Password
  • MENU
    State
    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Emails show extent of influence on school construction projects

    For nearly two years, officials at Connecticut’s school construction office attempted to direct millions of dollars in demolition and abatement work at local schools to a pair of hazardous material companies without giving other businesses an opportunity to compete for those contracts, records show.

    Over and over again, municipal leaders and school construction teams said they were instructed by state officials to hire one of two contractors: AAIS Corp. of West Haven or Bestech Inc. of Ellington.

    In Hartford, a frustrated member of the city’s school building committee concluded that their hands were bound when it came to paying AAIS.

    In Fairfield, the chairman of the town’s school building committee said he was ordered to “use the state-approved vendor, which is Bestech.”

    A manager on Enfield’s local middle school project said he hired AAIS based on “the requirement of the office of school construction grants.”

    And in Manchester, a manager overseeing an elementary school renovation said “the powers that be” in state government instructed the town to contact only one company about performing the hazmat work on that project — a plan that he considered to be “crazy.”

    The “powers” that manager was referring to were Konstantinos Diamantis, the former head of Connecticut’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review, and Michael Sanders, the “asbestos expert” who joined Diamantis’ small team of state employees in 2019.

    Probe began in 2022

    The actions of Diamantis and Sanders have been under a microscope since early 2022, when news broke that a federal grand jury was investigating the school construction office.

    At that point, officials in several towns and cities, including Groton and Bristol, alleged the two men pressured them to abandon the normal bidding process for school construction projects and ordered them to hire either AAIS or Bestech.

    But emails, meeting minutes and other documents obtained by The Connecticut Mirror show the push to award contracts to the two hazmat companies went well beyond what was previously reported and continued even after complaints from other contractors reached the highest levels of Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

    Nobody has been charged to this point as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into the state’s school construction program, and the emails do not indicate that Diamantis or Sanders received anything in return for helping to award contracts to AAIS and Bestech.

    But the actions that the school construction office took between 2019 and 2021 were enough to draw the attention of federal prosecutors, who also subpoenaed records from several towns where AAIS and Bestech performed work on local schools.

    Four years of emails

    The CT Mirror reviewed more than four years’ of emails that were sent to and from Sanders, a veteran state employee who died of a drug overdose in December 2021 shortly after the state received the first subpoena from federal authorities.

    Those communications outline repeated efforts within the school construction office to assign contracts for local schools directly to AAIS or Bestech, both of which were on a short list of state approved hazmat companies.

    In one email in early 2020, Sanders explained that the plan was to use that small list of companies to perform every school demolition and abatement project.

    “Have no doubt in your mind. ALL school construction abatement and demolition is going to be done by the state contract!” Sanders wrote in an email to a construction manager in Groton.

    By that point, AAIS and Bestech were already receiving nearly every contract for remediation work at state-owned parks, prisons, courthouses and office buildings in Connecticut. But according to the emails, Sanders and Diamantis wanted to extend the companies’ reach to local school projects as well.

    At the time, Sanders and Diamantis argued that selecting AAIS or Bestech to perform the work on school projects would save towns and cities money because the companies would bill municipalities based on the time and material needed for each job.

    The documents show Sanders’ influence on school projects began in the second half of 2019, and by early 2020, he was personally selecting which company was paid to perform the demolition and abatement work on multiple schools.

    The records also indicate that Diamantis, who stepped down from his government office shortly after the state was subpoenaed by federal investigators, allowed Sanders to take the lead when it came to the hazmat contracts for local schools.

    Even so, Sanders and the construction managers on school projects noted on several occasions that Diamantis was “on board” and “very supportive” of the new “directives” that were issued to towns and cities throughout Connecticut.

    The initiative

    AAIS and Bestech were not new to performing demolition and abatement work in Connecticut. For years, the two companies had been part of the state list of hazmat companies that were used to streamline the contracting process for demolition and abatement projects at state buildings.

    There were actually four companies that successfully applied to be on that state list in 2016, but state records show AAIS and Bestech were the primary beneficiaries, receiving more than 98% of the work authorized for state properties.

    When Sanders joined the Office of School Construction Grants & Review, he began to encourage municipal leaders to choose contractors directly from the same list.

    Applying that state contracting process to schools was a new strategy. For the first time, local officials were advised not to solicit bids for school demolition and abatement work but to use the companies on the state contracting list instead.

    That advice provided AAIS and Bestech with an advantageous position when it came to local school projects, because Sanders did not believe the other two companies on the state list were capable of performing that work.

    By early 2020, at least four local school contracts, worth more than $12 million, were awarded to AAIS and Bestech without any competitive bidding, according to Sanders’ emails and interviews with AAIS executives.

    The contracts for the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hartford, the New London High School and the John F. Kennedy Middle School in Enfield were directed to AAIS. Meanwhile, the demolition and abatement work at the Mill Hill Elementary School in Fairfield went to Bestech.

    In a series of interviews, AAIS Vice President Glen Mulrenan acknowledged that the company received the contracts for the schools in Hartford, Enfield and New London without going through a competitive bidding process. He said Sanders instructed the company to submit budget estimates to the management teams on each project.

    “So we did that, and whatever happened afterwards was between Sanders and the state and their initiative,” Mulrenan said, adding, “They thought that maybe going to a state contract was a better route than some of the lump-sum bids.”

    James Newbury, the president of Bestech, also confirmed that his company was awarded the contract for the Mill Hill Elementary School in Fairfield after submitting a quote for that work. But he said he was not aware of whether other companies were also given an opportunity to compete for that job.

    Sanders’ emails, which were obtained by the CT Mirror through a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, show that the push to hire AAIS and Bestech for local projects went well beyond those four schools, however.

    The documents also reference schools in Manchester, Windham, New Fairfield, Bridgeport and Darien, where officials discussed hiring AAIS or Bestech based on the new “recommendations” and “guidelines” that were put forward by Sanders and the state’s school construction team.

    Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, officials at the Department of Administrative Services told the CT Mirror that the state played no role in the selection of hazmat contractors for local schools.

    When asked detailed questions about the nature of some of the municipal school hazmat contracts, a spokesman for DAS did not answer the questions and instead issued the following response:

    “The company hired is at the discretion of the municipality,” said Leigh Appleby, the DAS spokesman, in an email last week. “The state has no role in the solicitation or awarding of bids for these projects.”

    Making things interesting

    Sanders had an established relationship with AAIS and Bestech long before he began assigning school construction projects to the two companies.

    Over the 24 years he worked in state government, Sanders oversaw the cleanup of asbestos and other hazardous material on a variety of state properties, ranging from former hospitals to courthouses to college campuses.

    He didn’t become involved in school construction contracts until mid-2019, around the time he was moving to Diamantis’ team.

    Emails show that Diamantis requested that Sanders and the hazmat program be moved under his oversight during that time.

    In August of that year, Diamantis informed Sanders that he would be supervising his work. “You and program going to be under me,” Diamantis wrote.

    Sanders was clearly enthusiastic about that change. “Awesome!!!!!!!!!!” he replied, before immediately forwarding the email to AAIS and Bestech employees.

    One of the AAIS employees, Keith Goudreau, an estimator who worked on pricing out remediation projects, also responded to the news about Sanders’ new boss. “This will make things interesting,” Goudreau wrote.

    AAIS would not make Goudreau available to comment for this story. But Mulrenan, the company’s vice president, said Goudreau wasn’t referencing future business for AAIS with his remark.

    “Mike was a character, and anytime Mike had a new boss, it was gonna be interesting,” Mulrenan said. “We always said, ‘Imagine being Mike’s boss?’ So that’s really what he meant by that. He had no idea that schools were going to be coming that way at that point.”

    A few days after Diamantis informed Sanders he was moving to his team, officials at the state Department of Administrative Services shared a spreadsheet with Diamantis that was used to track the state hazmat projects Sanders was working on.

    Those officials explained to Diamantis that the agency assigned other people to review and sign off on Sanders’ work on demolition and abatement projects on state buildings before the invoices were paid, and they said Diamantis would need to find someone to fill that role.

    Diamantis later told Noel Petra, a deputy commissioner at DAS, that he had appointed members of the school construction team to take over those administrative tasks. He also told Petra that he would personally ensure Sanders’ work was in compliance with state law.

    “While he is somewhat of an anomaly, (Sanders) has vast knowledge that put to good use will save us millions, which is what we do with my team,” Diamantis told Petra.

    In multiple interviews with the CT Mirror, Diamantis said it was no secret at the time that Sanders would be involved in assisting school districts with demolition and abatement contracts. He said he brought Sanders onto the school construction team in order to utilize his expertise with remediation projects.

    Diamantis said that’s also why Sanders was transferred to the state Office of Policy and Management in late 2019 with the other members of the state’s school construction team.

    “The guy is like a brainiac when it comes to hazmat costs, remediation processes, dump sites,” Diamantis said, describing Sanders.

    “He just wasn’t a shirt and tie guy, but he was brilliant,” Diamantis added.

    ‘A unique situation’

    The first school to use the state contract to hire AAIS or Bestech was the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Hartford, which was being renovated at the time. Records show AAIS was brought in to complete work on the school’s gymnasium and auditorium.

    But at least one Hartford school official questioned the unorthodox way that AAIS was being hired and paid.

    On July 20, 2020, John Bazzano, a member of Hartford’s School Building Committee, questioned how AAIS ended up on the project in the first place.

    “How much has this grown from the original purchase order?” Bazzano asked, according to the video recording of the meeting. “This doesn’t appear to be the way we have procured projects in the past,” he added.

    Jack Butkus, who worked for Arcadis, one of the managers on the middle school project, told Bazzano he was correct, and he described the contract with AAIS as a “unique situation.”

    Butkus explained that the state’s school construction office “felt AAIS was needed to supplement the original contractor who was struggling with the job.”

    “It’s the state’s way of assisting the project, which has run up very unexpected value,” Butkus said.

    The chairman of the Hartford school building committee asked if Bazzano and the other committee members had any other questions about AAIS’s work. “No,” Bazzano replied. “It appears our hands are bound.”

    Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Hartford recently underwent renovations. AAIS, a West Haven-based contractor, was chosen by state officials to perform part of the demolition and abatement work on that school. SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR

    When reached by the CT Mirror, Bazzano declined to elaborate on his concerns about the contract with AAIS, citing the ongoing federal investigation.

    “If you watched that meeting, you know exactly how I feel about that contract,” Bazzano said.

    Hartford eventually ended up paying AAIS nearly $4 million for the contract, which the company never had to bid on.

    “When we were brought in, the initial thought was it was a couple hundred thousand dollars of work, and that’s what we were kind of expecting. But they just kept having more and more work, and they were up against a time clock, and they really needed an army up there to get it done,” Mulrenan, AAIS’s vice president, said.

    ‘An obstructionist’

    Several months after AAIS was brought on to the MLK project in Hartford, the number of schools that Sanders was involved in expanded rapidly.

    In the first half of 2020, emails show Sanders was in contact with local officials or construction managers in Groton, Bristol, Enfield, Fairfield and New London, instructing them how to adhere to his new directives when hiring AAIS or Bestech from the state contracting list.

    But just like in Hartford, officials in many of those municipalities voiced confusion and concern about the instructions they were receiving from the state.

    Officials in Bristol and Groton both pushed back when they were instructed to set aside bids from other companies and to appoint AAIS and Bestech on three different school projects.

    Sanders was not thrilled about that opposition.

    When an official with O&G Industries, the construction manager in Groton, contacted Sanders in early April 2020, he replied with a stern email.

    “I am getting extremely frustrated that your PM (project manager) has not responded to me,” Sanders wrote.

    The project manager in Groton was Butkus, the same person who oversaw the MLK Middle School project in Hartford — a fact that was not lost on Sanders.

    “I have only just started getting involved in this project and I am deeply disturbed at the significant expenses being incurred that are not necessary,” Sanders wrote in a later email to Diamantis. “I am concerned that Jack is an obstructionist and is going to continue to have a negative impact on this project’s budget!”

    “Remember Jack is the guy who said we cannot use the state contract at MLK!” Sanders added.

    Butkus declined to comment for this story, but in April 2020, he openly shared his concerns about what Sanders and Diamantis were doing in an email that he sent to another member of the state’s school construction team.

    In that email to Robert Celmer, an architect with the school construction office, Butkus complained about the “new OSCG&R direction regarding abatement and demo.” And he questioned why that work should fall under the state contract when the town had already solicited bids from other hazmat companies.

    “At Cutler and West Side, two of the bidders that responded were AAIS and Bestech… although neither was the low bidder on either project,” Butkus wrote.

    Butkus proceeded to ask if he was “cleared to use the low bidders.”

    Celmer forwarded that email to both Sanders and Diamantis that same day, requesting a meeting to discuss Butkus’ concerns.

    There are no emails indicating whether that meeting ever took place. But Groton eventually ignored Sanders’ directives and hired the companies that submitted the lower bids.

    Seeking clarification

    While AAIS lost the contracts in Groton, Sanders made sure the company would be part of the New London High School project.

    In March 2020, an official with Newfield Downes, a construction manager on that project, emailed officials in New London to inform them that the plan was to hire AAIS without seeking other bids.

    “I have been in contact with Mike Sanders,” Tom DiMuro, with Newfield Downes, wrote. “Mike works directly for Kosta. Kosta is recommending/favoring this option and will be very supportive.”

    The emails show other officials overseeing the high school project were taken aback by the order and quickly requested a meeting in late March 2020 to “seek clarification” on the state’s instructions.

    “This process is new to me and the city,” wrote Diana McNeill, the senior project manager in charge of the New London project. “I think it will be prudent to have a meeting with Mike Sanders.”

    The notes from that eventual meeting indicate that Sanders personally selected AAIS for the job in New London, and he also informed the city that he would be in charge of approving all of the company’s invoices for the high school project.

    Around the same time, documents and video recordings show Sanders also issued similar marching orders to officials in Enfield.

    An email from March 11, 2020 shows AAIS reached out directly to the construction team on Enfield’s JFK Middle School to provide the town with a list of price estimates for their work.

    “Mike Sanders asked me to forward this to you a little while ago,” Joseph Villano, a vice president with AAIS, wrote. “These are the forms we use and submit to Mike. We have done several school projects using the state contract, and it has worked out very well.”

    It’s unclear if Enfield officials ever pushed back on the decision to hire AAIS without soliciting other bids.

    But a video from Enfield’s school building committee shows the town eventually complied with the orders they received from Sanders and the school construction office.

    “Last week, the finance department was finally able to issue a purchase order with AAIS,” Chris Cykley, a construction manager on the project, said during that meeting. “They are going to be the demo and abatement contractor per the requirement of the office of school construction grants.”

    ‘Blame the dead guy’

    In an interview with the CT Mirror, Diamantis said he played no role in directing municipal officials to abandon the standard bidding process for school projects, and he insisted that anyone alleging otherwise was trying to make him a scapegoat.

    “How the municipalities picked them is how they picked them,” Diamantis said. “I don’t sit there and make the decision on who could fit. I don’t go into the town and say ‘pick this guy.’”

    Diamantis added, “Mike’s mission in my mind was clear on what he was supposed to be doing — and that was going out and assisting those towns in understanding the information, especially if they wanted to get ahead of the game, to assist them in procuring a vendor off of the list.”

    Other people who knew Sanders, however, do not believe that he would issue hiring directives to towns and cities on his own.

    Sanders’ family and individuals who worked with him in the past said Diamantis and other state officials have tried to blame all of the hazmat contracting issues on Sanders.

    “We knew Mike to be supremely hard-working, ethical and dedicated. The idea that he somehow created all of this chaos in a vacuum when he was not even a supervisor is problematic on many levels,” Sharon Koch, Sanders’ sister, told the CT Mirror last year.

    “The convenient ‘blame the dead guy’ approach is unpalatable,” she said.

    Jennifer Peshka, who works on hazardous material projects for the University of Connecticut and interacted with Sanders in previous jobs, expressed similar doubts that he acted on his own to assign work to AAIS and Bestech.

    “It’s really frustrating that they are making Mike the scapegoat,” Peshka said. “He was old school — maybe not so good with paperwork — but I could never see him doing anything shady.”

    She added that Sanders would have “never acted on his own accord, and he certainly wasn’t running anything. He only did what Kosta ordered him to do.”

    A series of complaints

    The questions raised by municipal officials in the spring of 2020 were not the only complaints that were aired during Sanders’ two-year stint in the school construction office.

    Beginning in the spring of 2020 and into early 2021, other companies started to question why municipal school abatement projects weren’t going out to bid as they previously had.

    Irving Goldblum, the president of Stamford Wrecking, first wrote a letter to former DAS Commissioner Josh Geballe and former OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw in April 2020 questioning how the contracts were being awarded in Groton. The letter cited “OPM Efforts to Circumvent Public Bidding Requirements on School Projects.”

    Months later, in December 2020, Goldblum wrote a second letter to Geballe and McCaw after learning that Manchester was going to use only the state’s hazmat contractors to remediate the Buckley Elementary School.

    “For the last 12 months, the executive branch of the State of Connecticut has attempted to change the bid system for demolition and hazardous material abatement work,” Goldblum wrote. “It is our belief that the state of Connecticut, through OPM, has directed that Manchester skip the public bidding requirements and utilize the [state’s] list.”

    By that point, Goldblum had hired New Haven attorney Raymond Garcia to argue his case over the school contracts.

    Garcia followed up with Manchester officials on Jan. 26, 2021, complaining about Stamford Wrecking not being allowed to bid on the abatement and demolition work at the Buckley Elementary School project.

    When that failed, Garcia sent a letter directly to Attorney General William Tong, accusing Diamantis and the school construction office of using its authority over the school grants to steer between $10 million and $20 million in state-financed abatement and demolition work to AAIS and Bestech.

    “I ask that you investigate the effort to skirt the public bidding process and also inform the Town of Manchester, and any other municipality, that moving forward all elements of school construction projects funded by the State must be publicly bid,” Garcia wrote.

    The attorney general’s office referred the matter to “appropriate authorities.”

    Gov. Ned Lamont’s office said Friday it will not, as a matter of policy, comment on any ongoing investigation.

    But even as Stamford Wrecking pressed its complaints, Sanders continued to represent to municipal officials that Diamantis was OK with local officials hand-picking AAIS or Bestech to perform the work on school projects.

    “The State is trying to get away from low bids, the building committee should just pick one contractor,” Sanders told school building officials in Windham on Feb. 1, 2021.

    He noted that exact process was already used in New London and Enfield, and he told Windham officials that “Kosta is on board.”

    When Windham officials followed up about those instructions, however, Diamantis told them that Sanders was mistaken in the advice he provided.

    Diamantis sent an email to Windham officials clarifying that municipalities can’t simply select AAIS or Bestech for school projects. And he explained that local officials had to obtain quotes from multiple companies even if they were going to use the state contract.

    “Plucking one contractor from the list would not make it reimbursable,” Diamantis wrote in the email, which was sent less than a week after Stamford Wrecking’s complaint reached the Attorney General’s office.

    The state eventually clarified those rules in a written policy that was published in March 2021.

    In an interview, Diamantis said he made it clear to members of his team that even if a municipality used the state contract for schools, they were still required to obtain quotes from all four companies on that list.

    “We enforced it as best as we could,” Diamantis told the CT Mirror. “What was happening out in the field, obviously I relied on my staff, especially during COVID.”

    “I’ll take responsibility for not knowing maybe every project and everything that was happening in the field,” he added.

    ‘Where is our authority?’

    Sanders’ work on school projects came to an abrupt halt in late 2021, after Diamantis was fired from his position as a deputy budget director and resigned as the director of the school construction program.

    Emails show that within weeks of the first subpoena being issued to the state, officials were scrambling to understand exactly what Diamantis and Sanders had been doing for more than two years.

    Sanders was quickly transferred back to the state Department of Administrative Services, where officials began to question him about his involvement on local school projects.

    On Nov. 2, Sanders sent two officials at DAS a long memo outlining more than eight school abatement projects he’d recently overseen, totaling more than $34 million.

    “Over the past two years I have been working to educate Municipalities, Construction Administrators and Building Committees on how to administer the State Contract for hazardous material abatement and demolition,” Sanders wrote.

    “The need to do this was brought to light by numerous school construction projects that were at risk for failing due to enormous amount of change orders, and subsequent scheduling delays caused by these change orders.”

    Doug Moore, Sanders’ new boss, responded by asking Sanders who authorized him to directly manage municipal school projects.

    “What I am most concerned about is where is our authority to perform municipal school abatement and demolition work as state workers? Was there legislation or sort of agreement signed which allows our statewide abatement program to take on and manage hazardous abatement work at municipal schools utilizing municipal funds,” Moore wrote on Nov. 4, 2021.

    Sanders did not respond to Moore’s email, according to CT Mirror’s review of Sanders’ correspondence.

    Petra, the deputy commissioner at the DAS, also followed up on that email by ordering Sanders not to go anywhere near school projects.

    “I just want to make sure it’s clear that Mike is NOT to work with municipalities,” Petra wrote. “He is only allowed to work within state owned facilities.”

    Sanders responded to Petra’s email the next day and explained that he had just left a meeting with South Windsor officials where they were entering the initial phases of another school project, and he told Moore and Petra that he expected to save the municipality “at least a million dollars.”

    “I am deeply involved in school projects, but will drop them,” Sanders wrote.

    Petra responded immediately to the news that Sanders was still meeting with school construction teams, despite his orders.

    “You are not authorized to work on Municipal Schools. There is nothing in your contract that allows that. It has nothing to do with your ability at all,” Petra wrote.

    In the weeks that followed, Moore and Petra issued a long list of new orders for Sanders to follow.

    They told him to start using his computer daily. They instructed him to start scheduling all of his meetings in an online calendar. They demanded he begin answering emails regularly, instead of using his private cell phone to communicate. And they reminded him not to go anywhere near local school projects.

    Sanders promised Moore and Petra that he’d terminated all of his work on school construction projects, and he sought to reassure his bosses that he could be counted on.

    “I look forward to being an asset to your group, once you see what I am capable of I am sure things will smooth out,” Sanders wrote.

    Only 10 days later, Sanders was found dead of a drug overdose in a friend’s driveway in Old Saybrook. Both the police reports and court records related to Sanders’ death are sealed.

    daltimari@ctmirror.org

    abrown@ctmirror.org

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.