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February 18, 2022

Bristol, Groton officials: State pressured them on school building contracts

CT-N Konstantinos Diamantis, then director of the Office of School Construction Grants.

Officials in Bristol and Groton say they were pressured to scrap competitive bids for school-related construction projects in early 2020 and instead told to award multimillion-dollar contracts to companies pre-selected by the state, echoing claims made by other Connecticut towns.

Current and former officials in both municipalities said they received orders from the Connecticut Office of School Construction Grants and Review, which was led by former legislator Konstantinos Diamantis, to reject the winning bids for demolition services and hazardous materials cleanup for three different schools.

They said they were instructed to give that work instead to two companies that had existing emergency contracts with the state.

A letter obtained by the CT Mirror alleges that Diamantis was responsible for the “directive” that was issued to city officials in Bristol in April 2020.

Diamantis led the state’s school construction grant program for more than six years, but he retired last October after Gov. Ned Lamont placed him on paid administrative leave in conjunction with an investigation into his daughter’s hiring at the state Division of Criminal Justice.

Diamantis was fired from his other position as deputy commissioner at the Office of Policy and Management the same day.

The state was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury around the same time for records related to Diamantis and several state-financed projects, including school construction grants and the State Pier in New London.

Norm Pattis, a lawyer who represents Kosta Diamantis, did not respond to a request for comment.

But in recent weeks, school officials and municipal leaders in Tolland, Hartford and New Britain have come forward, claiming they also felt pressured to pick school construction contractors that were recommended by the state in recent years.

Documents have also emerged that show a contractor warned the Lamont administration and Attorney General William Tong as far back as April 2020 that state officials were allegedly sidestepping the normal bidding procedures for school-related projects.

The three school construction projects undertaken in Bristol and Groton in the spring of 2020 were all mentioned in letters sent to the attorney general’s office, Lamont’s budget secretary and his former chief operating officer.

And all three projects ran into similar issues, with state officials placing significant pressure on the municipalities to pick a demolition and hazardous material contractor that had a pre-existing relationship with the state.

The state Department of Administrative Service, which regained control of the school construction program from OPM following Diamantis’s dismissal, said that type of pressure campaign should not have occurred.

“It is not and should not be common practice to require municipalities to use specific contractors in order to access state funding,” Laura Rae Anderson, a spokeswoman for the agency said. “Since DAS has re-inherited the administration of the school construction grant program, DAS has adhered to all policies, laws, and ethical guidelines while ensuring complete transparency.”

The ‘directive’

Elected leaders and municipal employees in Groton and Bristol said they were baffled when the state instructed them to throw out the winning bids that had been chosen after a public procurement process.

They were also confused why the state was urging them to give the government contracts to companies that had already submitted less-favorable offers.

In the end, both municipalities ignored the state’s advice and awarded the contracts to companies that made lower bids.

But the episodes left some people questioning the actions and policies of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review.

“I do remember there was some talk about whether we had to dispense with the low bidder because the second-lowest bidder was on a state contract,” said Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, the former mayor of Bristol.

“I pushed back, because if there is a low bidder, there is a low bidder,” she added. “It was a very confusing thing right as we were beginning.”

Dale Clift, Bristol’s former corporation counsel, wrote a letter to Diamantis in May 2020 that described the back-and-forth that took place between the city and the state. It laid out a detailed timeline of what the state had communicated to the city.

The letter shows that the city received numerous bids for the demolition and abatement work for Bristol’s Memorial Boulevard Arts Magnet School on April 21, 2020.

Select Demo Services, which is headquartered in New Hampshire, was the lowest bidder, offering to do the work for $4.73 million.

But before the contract could be finalized, Clift wrote, officials in the city were approached by Michael Sanders, a former employee at the state Department of Administrative Services. He advised the city to reject the other bids and hire Bestech, an Ellington-based company, instead.

According to Clift’s letter, that “directive” was delivered by Sanders but was issued by Diamantis.

Sanders worked as an associate project manager for construction services under Diamantis at the Office of School Construction Grants and Review, according to state records.

“(Sanders) represented that you were directing all bids for abatement and demolition to be rejected,” Clift told Diamantis in the letter. “This directive came so late in the process and was so surprising, the project personnel sought and received verbal reinforcement and validation of your directive over the next several days.”

Bestech, which did not respond to a phone call seeking comment for this story, had also bid on the demolition and abatement work at Bristol’s new magnet school.

It was considered the runner-up because it offered to perform the work for $200,000 more than Select Demo, which also did not return phone calls for this story.

Even so, the letter alleges Sanders “invoked” Diamantis’ “authority,” as the head of the state’s school construction grant program, to justify awarding the job to Bestech.

Sanders, who worked for the state government for 27 years and was a resident of Old Lyme, died late last year.

Police found the 53-year-old’s body at a home in Old Saybrook on Dec. 17. The state’s Chief Medical Examiner later listed his cause of death as an accidental overdose tied to cocaine and fentanyl.

The letter notes that Bristol initially went along with the state’s plan to award the work to Bestech after Sanders delivered his message to the city, but local officials reversed course after Select Demo protested the decision.

Clift, Bristol’s former attorney, said he wrote the letter to Diamantis in May 2020 in order to confirm that the state would support the city’s choice to stick with Select Demo. He wanted to help the city to “avoid any legal jeopardy” from that decision.

But Diamantis never responded to the letter, Clift said.

‘State-qualified contractors’

Meanwhile, in Groton, local officials also struggled to understand the orders that were handed down by the state.

The town was busy that spring with two state-financed renovation projects at the West Side Elementary School and Cutler Elementary School.

Local officials had already selected O&G Industries, a Torrington-based company, to serve as the primary contractor for the projects, but O&G needed to hire a demolition and hazardous materials cleanup crew for the job.

To do so, the town followed the normal procedures and solicited offers from a number of companies specializing in those services.

After, the town was prepared to hire Stamford Wrecking Services for the West Side project and American Environmental Inc. for the Cutler project.

Those companies, which did not respond to a request for comment, came in as the lowest bidders for the elementary school jobs. But just like in Bristol, local officials were stopped before they could complete the contracts, officials said.

Greg Hanover, Groton’s Director of Public Works, said someone from the state notified O&G that it should reject the lowest bids and award the contracts to AAIS, a West Haven company that was the runner-up for both school projects.

AAIS did not respond to a phone call or email for this story.

“Somebody contacted O&G from the Office of School Constructions Grants and Review and informed them that there’s a new policy in place and that for demolition contractors we were supposed to use one of the state-qualified contractors and pay them on a time and material basis,” Hanover said.

That didn’t sit well with Groton officials, according to Hanover. He said the town “pushed back” and informed the state that the town had already completed the procurement process for the work.

There were significant price disparities between what the winning companies had offered and what AAIS had proposed. For the West Side school project, for instance, Stamford Wrecking’s bid was nearly $240,000 less than the offer submitted by AAIS.

“It kind of went back and forth, but we ultimately prevailed over the state and hired the two low bidders,” Hanover said.

Roughly a year later, Diamantis issued a policy statement that clarified that it was up to municipalities to decide the “appropriateness” of using demolition and hazardous material contractors that were pre-selected by the state.

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