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July 9, 2024

CT contracting watchdogs asked not to talk without director’s OK

KYLE CONSTABLE / CTMIRROR.ORG The State Contracting Standards Board meeting in 2017.

An appointee of Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing that Connecticut’s contracting watchdog panel not publicly discuss its work — which includes investigations of Executive Branch agencies — without clearing it with him.

But Gregory F. Daniels, appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont as executive director of the State Contracting Standards Board, said Monday that the draft ethics policy he and other staff submitted to members last week is to ensure “consistent and transparent disclosure” and not to restrict communications.

Lamont spokeswoman Julia Bergman said the governor’s office was not aware of the language that was included in the draft, which will be taken up by the board later this week.

Members and staff of the watchdog agency, who are empowered to review contracts and purchasing rules for all agencies, are “expected and encouraged to discuss the organization with one another,” reads the draft policy.

But “they shall not report opinions expressed in meetings, nor shall they report independently on the SCSB board or committee actions or engage in any communication that has not been approved by the executive director or that would not be supported by SCSB board policy, procedures, or decisions,” it further stipulates.

“It sounds like gag order,” said board member Salvatore Luciano, former head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, who added it seemingly reverses the roles of the board and the executive director appointed to serve it. 

“The executive director reports to the board,” Luciano said. “This would have the board report to him. It makes absolutely no sense.”

Board member Daniel Rovero, a former state representative from Killingly, noted the draft seemingly blocks members from discussing business — even matters discussed in open session at board meetings, which can be accessed by the public — without Daniels’ approval.

Rovero added he would reserve judgment until the board discusses the draft with Daniels when it meets at 10 a.m. Friday at the state office building at 165 Capitol Ave. in Hartford. But at first blush, he said, “it doesn’t sound right. Anything that’s discussed in open session, you should be able to discuss it with anybody.”

The contracting board, which grew out of the scandal that ultimately sent former Gov. John G. Rowland to federal prison, performs sensitive work. 

But past and former members also said board’s mission is founded on fairness and transparency and that restricting speech without approval from a gubernatorial appointee doesn’t fit well with that.

“It runs counter to the philosophy, I think, many of the board members have,” said member Bruce H. Buff of Avon, who added, “We have, I think, an obligation to be frank and express our opinions.”

“The idea that we would put a muzzle on board members … I think, is a terrible, terrible idea,” said former board chairman Lawrence Fox of West Hartford, who stepped down last September after nearly a decade-and-a-half on the panel and five years as its chairman. “The board is supposed to bring sunshine to the citizens of Connecticut about what is going on with contracting.”

The new board chairwoman appointed last month, Rochelle Palache, vice president of the union representing thousands of public- and private-sector maintenance, food service, school and security personnel, declined to evaluate the draft policy Monday.

But Palache said “I am stepping into this position with one goal in mind: creating the most transparent contracting process so that our state is a good steward of taxpayer dollars. We all deserve to know that [our] hard-earned money is being put to good use, and that means a commitment to clean contracting.”

Daniels: Board members can revise communications policy

Daniels, who was appointed by Lamont as the executive director in December 2022, told The Connecticut Mirror on Monday that the staff of the contracting board created the proposed ethics policy in order to set up some “guardrails” for the board members. 

But he repeatedly emphasized that the policy was only a draft and that board members could make changes to the proposal.

“They can make any changes that they see fit,” Daniels said. 

The language restricting the communication of board members, he said, was meant to ensure the board was not sharing confidential information that it comes into possession of. 

In hindsight, Daniels said the sentence that would block board members from engaging in “any communication” without the permission of the executive director was overly broad. 

Daniels said he and the staff had “no intent” to limit communications by the board with members of the media or the public.

The executive director had frustrated some board members earlier this year, according to an April 21 report in the Connecticut Inside Investigator, a project of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. Daniels unilaterally had canceled board meetings set for March, April and May because Lamont had not yet filled the then-vacant chairman’s post following the departure of East Hartford Mayor Michael Walsh, who had succeeded Fox.

Contracting watchdogs have struggled to survive since its inception

But the board has faced many obstacles to its ability to function throughout its 17-year history. Those struggles include a rocky history with Lamont, who at times has questioned whether some of the board’s functions are redundant.

The linchpin of the landmark “Clean Contracting” system created in 2007 by the Democratic-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the standards board was Connecticut’s response to the contracting scandals that drove 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.

A 14-member panel, appointed by the governor and top lawmakers, would be empowered to review contracts and procurement practices for most government agencies.

Not long after the board’s creation, though, Connecticut fell into the Great Recession, and legislators and Rell siphoned away nearly all resources, leaving the volunteer standards board with no staff to carry out its functions.

An executive director was hired years later, but once the recession had ended, Democrats would take control of the governor’s office — first Dannel P. Malloy, who served from 2011 through 2018, and then Lamont — and show little interest in contracting oversight.

Malloy tried in his first six months to suspend contracting board operations for two years so he could more easily privatize state services and cut operating costs.

Lamont, who also has touted privatization to make government cheaper and more efficient, offered a bill in 2019 to make it easier to launch public-private ventures.

The legislature killed Lamont’s proposal, though, after Luciano called it an “an alarming attempt to return us to the shadowy Rowland years.”

The Lamont administration also tried unsuccessfully to convince legislators two years ago to strip the board’s enforcement powers, arguing that the contracting standards board largely duplicates watchdog efforts already performed by other agencies such as the state auditors of public accounts.

But the auditors have almost no enforcement powers, while the contracting standards board can suspend a procurement process already underway if it concludes an agency isn’t in compliance with state rules.

The standards board also had to battle to secure funding to hire a six-member investigative staff, finally winning those funds in 2022 — 15 years after its creation in statute.

Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, who helped spearhead the push to secure those funds, said advocates have waited too long for a fully functioning watchdog group to see it stalled now by unusual limits on communication in the draft ethics policy.

“I’ve never heard of any board — that has oversight over staff — having a policy where the communications of that board had to be approved by the staff,” she said. “That, in itself, is surprising. But to have this be a potential policy at a government watchdog agency takes that to another level.”

Standards board has bumped heads with Lamont

While the contracting board was fighting for more resources in recent years, it was bumping heads with Lamont on two matters relevant to the administration.

Volunteer board members sacrificed extra time to probe more than $520,000 in “success” fees paid six years ago by the Connecticut Port Authority to a New York-based consultant, Seabury Capital Group, to help with search for an operator for state pier in New London. The pier was converted into the staging point for an off-shore wind-to-energy project backed with state and private funding and strong support from the governor, who was critical of the port authority’s handling of the matter.

The contracting board wrapped an investigation two years ago earlier concluding those fees were eerily similar to the “finder’s fees” scandal that sent a former state Treasurer Paul Silvester to prison in 2001. The General Assembly banned “finder’s fees” after Silvester admitted he had accepted kickbacks in exchange for steering investment of state-controlled pension funds.

The board also has the power to review Connecticut’s school construction office, which landed at the center of contracting scandal in recent years.

That scandal exploded earlier this year when Konstantinos Diamantis, the former director of the school construction office, was indicted for allegedly steering construction contracts to specific companies and then extorting those companies for bribes.

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