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October 20, 2022

CT contracting watchdog close to adding investigative team

YEHYUN KIM / CT MIRROR Contractors at the State Pier in New London drove pilings into the riverbed to extend the northeastern section of the port facility.

For its entire 15-year history, the state’s contracting watchdog agency has been a shell operation, battling to secure funds to hire an actual investigative staff.

And while the State Contracting Standards Board finally won that fight in May, it is well into its fourth month of the new fiscal year with no investigative team in place — though officials say that’s about to change.

“We’re on it, we’re active, but it’s just taking its time,” said West Hartford Democrat Lawrence Fox, the board’s chairman. “No one is slow-walking it.”

The board, which wants to delve deeper into all state agency contracting procedures — particularly those involving the Connecticut Port Authority and an offshore wind farm near New London — expects to ramp up activities this winter, Fox insisted.

But he also noted that while securing funding was a crucial first step, state agencies cannot hire until proper job descriptions and classifications have been drafted and approved, until jobs are posted and initial applications are reviewed — all of which is done in conjunction with the Department of Administrative Services. And DAS officials have their hands full these days after watching more than 4,500 state employees — spread across all agencies — retire during the first six months of 2022.

The surge in retirements between January and June — roughly double the annual total in recent years — was triggered largely by a 2017 concessions package between the state and its employee unions. That deal tightened pension benefits for workers who retire after June 30, 2022.

“DAS is pleased to partner with the State Contracting Standards Board to support its mission and critical recruitment efforts,” Commissioner Michelle Gilman said this week. “All positions are on track to be filled expeditiously, yet in accordance with statutory, regulatory and collective bargaining procedures.”

The contracting board will receive lists of candidates for all five positions in its investigative team this week.

Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature included $454,000 to fund the new positions in the $24.2 billion state budget they adopted in early May for the fiscal year that began July 1.

The board was the linchpin of the “Clean Contracting” system created in 2007 in response to the contracting scandals that drove Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office amid an impeachment inquiry in July 2004. Rowland later served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he accepted about $100,000 in gifts from state contractors and his staff.

The board was empowered to review Executive Branch agencies’ contracting processes to ensure they were transparent, cost-efficient and in compliance with the law. It also would have authority to suspend any procurement effort deemed improper.

But it never was provided with funding to employ more than an executive director and occasional clerical staff.

Pressure from legislators to strengthen the contracting watchdog office has intensified since early February following reports that the FBI is investigating school construction work and other projects once overseen by Lamont’s former deputy budget director, Konstantinos Diamantis.

The contracting board also wants to delve more deeply into the Connecticut Port Authority’s efforts to renovate State Pier in New London to make it the staging point for development of an offshore wind-to-energy project.

The watchdog board’s volunteer members contributed their own time last winter to begin investigating a $523,000 “success” fee the port authority paid to a New York consulting firm that helped it find a pier operator. That consulting firm, Seabury Capital Group of New York, has close ties to a former port authority member.

Fox has said he believes the contracting watchdog, once fully staffed, both can improve the quality of state services and reduce wasteful spending through better monitoring of contracts.

State employee unions also have been strong advocates of a fully staffed watchdog agency since its inception.

The [board] is a critical watchdog agency that protects public investment through ethical procurement and ensuring our workforce is able to function efficiently and effectively,” Drew Stoner, spokeswoman for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, said Tuesday. “We are thrilled to see movement on filling the five positions that the legislature approved.”

SEBAC, which includes nearly all state employee unions except for the state police, has said hiring across all agencies must be a priority and that the public-sector workforce is in crisis.

Under Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Executive Branch workforce shrank almost 10% between 2011 and 2018 as state officials frequently used attrition to help close budget deficits.

Stoner said mental health, public safety and education services face critical shortages that need immediate attention.

Gilman added that the state’s human resources teams have fast-tracked the hiring of nearly 3,000 people over the past three months, “employees who will support our most vulnerable residents, strengthen our state’s infrastructure, expand access to digital government and more.”

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