Editorial: Sen. Somers part of bipartisan push to support CT good govt watchdog

February 28, 2022

Reverse course, governor, support funding watchdog 

(The Day Editorial)

Gov. Ned Lamont should reverse course and support adequately funding the Contracting Standards Board so it can do its job of looking for irregularities and improprieties in the awarding of state contracts and in bidding procedures. As things stand now the board has funding for only one full-time position, the executive director.

On this one, policy and politics align for the governor.

Concerning policy, the board can save the state money by helping assure contracts go to the low bidder that meets all the established criteria for a given project. Giving teeth to this policy watchdog would also deter those who might entertain using their public positions to direct state business to political or familial favorites, or in return for kickbacks. And the board’s guidance could help the legislature improve contracting and bidding rules.

Speaking politically, embracing efforts to strengthen the board would demonstrate that the governor is serious about doing all he can to avoid a repeat of the scandal that has recently tainted his administration and that he is unafraid to have other contracts subjected to stringent reviews.

Yes, Lamont would have to admit he was wrong to have previously blocked such funding. But the explanation for doing so sits right in front of him. The existing safeguards were insufficient to prevent the improprieties his administration is now dealing with.

If Lamont digs in, then what? A bill could land on his desk that provides funding for the Contracting Standards Board. He then either vetoes the legislation intended to improve state government ethics — good luck explaining that in an election year — or, politically cornered, he signs it into law.

Better to get ahead of this now, governor.

The creation of the State Contracting Standards Board was among the reforms approved in the wake of the pay-for-play scandal that drove Gov. John G. Rowland out of office and into federal prison in 2004. It was a bipartisan reform, supported by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and a Democratic legislature.

But governors have resisted funding it. It is understandable why governors would be leery of the board having too much authority. It will find instances when the state did not follow procedures — it already has despite its limited funding support — and that can be embarrassing for a governor.

Lamont is on record as saying the state can benefit from more public-private partnerships. Tougher contracting board reviews would add a layer of difficulty in pursuing such arrangements. But Lamont should recognize that a strong watchdog can help assure such arrangements do not benefit the private to the detriment of the public.

In the last legislative session, the General Assembly allocated $450,000 to provide paid staff, including a chief procurement officer, research analyst, staff attorney and an accounts examiner. But on the governor’s initiative the funding was stripped out during passage of the massive implementer bill.

Now state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the co-chair of Appropriations, has reintroduced legislation to fully fund the board, this time at $467,055. Joining Osten in introducing the bill were Reps. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and Anthony Nolan, D-New London, along with several other Democrats.

The idea to empower the board with increased funding has bipartisan support, with Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, introducing similar legislation. 

Osten’s proposal would shift the board from the executive branch to the legislative side of the budget, while Somers would place it in the Auditors of Public Accounts office. This is a small difference. If financially supported, the board can do its job wherever situated.

The administration is reeling from allegations that Konstantinos Diamantis, the former deputy director of the Office of Policy and Management, sought to steer some school construction contracts to a business that employed his daughter. Lamont fired Diamantis from his deputy director post in October, where he had also overseen contracts tied to the $235 million redevelopment of State Pier in New London. A federal grand jury is reviewing the handling of the contracts.

Groton school officials said Diamantis’s office tried to direct them away from low bidders for school projects there. They resisted, which saved the town hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other towns did follow the directions coming from Diamantis, adding costs. This shows an aggressive, properly staffed contracting board could easily pay for itself in savings.

In his budget, Lamont has proposed to instead add three more auditors to improve oversight. But auditors catch mistakes and misdeeds after the fact.

Support legislation to fully fund the contracting board, Gov. Lamont, and do the state and yourself a favor.