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January 30, 2023

State says it won’t pay New London for school demolition work

Google Maps The New London High School campus. State officials say they can't reimburse New London for remediation work on the new school if it wasn't put out to bid.

New London may be forced to pay several million dollars in demolition and remediation work for a new high school project because local officials allegedly heeded the directions of Konstantinos Diamantis, the former leader of Connecticut’s school construction program.

Officials with the Department of Administrative Services, which houses the state’s school construction office, recently informed the city that it will not pay for any of the roughly $4 million in demolition or abatement work at the New London High School because that contract was never put out to bid, as state law requires.

“Work that was not competitively bid or work that was done using a state contract without obtaining multiple quotes is not eligible for reimbursement at any rate,” said John McKay, a spokesman for DAS.

Elected leaders and school construction supervisors in New London said that news came as a surprise to them, considering Diamantis allegedly instructed the city to hire a demolition contractor from a short list of state-approved vendors.

It’s unclear if any other school districts in the state could face similar problems obtaining state reimbursement for work that was performed on local school projects in recent years.

McKay said the state would need to do more research to determine if other municipalities neglected to open bids for some of the contracts for local school projects in the past.

But the allegations that Diamantis pushed municipalities to hire certain contractors are not new, and they are not unique to New London.

After a federal investigation into the school construction program burst into public view last year, local leaders in several towns and cities came forward to accuse Diamantis of pressuring them to hire specific contractors for local school projects, including demolition and abatement companies.

Diamantis, who resigned from his post in late 2021, a few weeks after the state was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury, denies ever instructing New London, or any other school district, to choose a specific contractor for demolition and abatement work.

“I want to be clear. I never directed anyone to hire a particular vendor, and I did not instruct members of my team to advocate for any,” Diamantis told the CT Mirror this week. He laid the responsibility for any errors on a former subordinate who died in December 2021.

But officials in New London argue that the city is being unfairly punished for following the past directives of Diamantis and his team.

Dianna McNeill, who has served as a senior manager for the New London High School project, said the city hired AAIS, a company based in West Haven, without a formal bidding process due to directions they received from Diamantis and his staff at the Office of School Construction Grants and Review.

McNeill told the Mirror that she considered those directions, at the time, as a “bit of a head-scratcher” because she had never seen a demolition or hazardous waste remediation contract awarded in that fashion for a school before.

But, she said, New London officials complied with the order because it came from Diamantis, who had significant authority over school construction and the state grants for those projects.

“Again, it came from the guy at the top,” McNeill said. “New London was following his direction.”

After the contract was approved, McNeill said, Mike Sanders — another former staffer in the state’s school construction office — stepped in to personally direct AAIS at the high school project. And she said Sanders pre-approved the more than $4 million in work that the company performed at the site.

Based on those circumstances, McNeill and local elected leaders in New London do not believe the municipality should be on the hook for those construction costs.

Three state Democratic lawmakers representing New London — Rep. Christine Conley, Rep. Anthony Nolan, and Sen. Martha Marx — sponsored legislation this session that would require the state to reimburse the city for the work performed by AAIS.

Conley argued this week that New London should not be punished for following the advice of Diamantis, who served as the director of the school construction program for roughly six years.

“The schools were told to use a certain company, and that they did not need to bid it out,” Conley said. “And the schools followed what they were told by the person who had the job.”

Diamantis said anyone claiming he instructed New London to hire AAIS for the high school project was seeking to make him a scapegoat.

Local school officials were allowed to use the list of state-approved contractors for work on school projects as long as they obtained quotes from multiple companies on that list, Diamantis said. But he never suggested or ordered local officials to use the state-approved list of vendors in order to simply pick one from the list or otherwise circumvent the normal bidding process, he said.

Other districts have made similar claims

Officials in New London, however, aren’t the first to allege that Diamantis personally ordered them to ignore the state’s bidding requirements and to hand a contract to a demolition and abatement company that was pre-selected by the state.

An executive and an attorney with Stamford Wrecking, another demolition company, sent numerous letters to Attorney General William Tong and other state officials in 2020 and 2021 alleging Diamantis was encouraging municipalities to side-step state law.

One of those letters, sent to Josh Geballe and Melissa McCaw, the former leaders of DAS and the state Office of Policy and Management, mentioned the New London High School project. And it alleged that the contract AAIS received for the project was arranged because of “overtures” by state officials.

Diamantis responded to those letters at the time by dismissing many of the concerns from Stamford Wrecking. In internal emails, he referred to the company’s attorney as a “well known shabby complainer.”

Local leaders in Groton and Bristol echoed many of the allegations that were presented in those letters last year. In the case of Bristol, local officials provided documents to the CT Mirror that detailed what was communicated by Diamantis and his team at the time.

One of those documents described how Sanders issued a “directive” to Bristol officials — reportedly on behalf of Diamantis — instructing the city to throw out the bids they received for a school demolition project and to hire Bestech, a company selected by the state.

Both Bristol and Groton eventually chose to ignore those directions, and unlike New London, the two municipalities hired their own contractors for the demolition and abatement work using a local bidding process.

Diamantis: ‘Issues were corrected’

Diamantis told the CT Mirror he had nothing to do with those contract disputes in Bristol or Groton. And he said that if anything like that transpired in New London, it would have been the fault of Sanders, who died in December 2021 from a suspected drug overdose.

“If that happened early on, it was Mike’s error. He was new to the program. It was certainly not intentional,” Diamantis said. “And I am speaking for Mike, God rest his soul.”

The disputes that arose in Bristol and Groton, Diamantis said, were isolated to a few schools, and he said he quickly moved to fix those mistakes.

“Those issues were corrected,” Diamantis said, “and Mike Sanders was made clear that he was not to go to school districts and tell them to do anything with respect to how they run their project.”

According to Diamantis, the only reason New London officials are pointing the finger at him now is because they don’t want to get stuck covering the cost of the demolition and abatement contract for their new high school.

“Continuing to slander me with inaccurate statements or false statements for the failures of professionals hired to know the process and to follow a simple process will no longer be tolerated,” Diamantis said in a follow-up email. “I do not know what happened in New London.”

“Hopefully we are clear on the facts,” he added. “I ran a solid program with a great team. We took pride in our work and our program in the best interest of the kids, and no community was forced to hire anyone.”

Conley said she and her colleagues in the legislature are simply trying to correct an issue that was created by the state.

Officials at DAS said they are required to follow state law when it comes to reimbursements for school construction projects.

That means the agency’s can’t reimburse New London for those costs unless the legislature approves special exemption for the New London project.

Conley said she expects the General Assembly to pass that legislation this year.

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