Sen. Somers looks to prevent weakening of watchdog agency

February 23, 2022

Sen. Somers looks to prevent weakening of watchdog agency


From The Day of New London


Eastern Connecticut legislators from both sides of the aisle are in agreement on fully funding the state Contracting Standards Board, though Republicans and Democrats may differ in method.

In addition to a bill state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, and state Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, among other legislators, have introduced to place the board under legislative management with its powers intact, state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, is proposing a similar bill with a significant distinction.

In a letter to General Administration and Elections Committee leaders, Somers advocated for legislation that would move the board from the Executive Branch to the Connecticut State Auditors of Public Accounts with its powers intact.

“The board shall also be empowered to require legislative approval for any contract that deems it necessary,” the letter reads.

“Right now they can go through and point out some of the errors, but they don’t have the teeth so to speak to do anything about the errors that they find,” Somers said of the board. “Let’s say the board finds something like they did with the port authority. All they can do is identify it and if the governor’s office doesn’t want to do anything with it, it just sort of dies.”

The board recently completed an investigation into the Connecticut Port Authority. Parts of the board’s report, which criticized past practices of the port authority, were contested by the authority.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s recent budget proposal allocated $218,770 to the Auditors of Public Accounts for three additional auditors, instead of the additional $467,055 needed to fully staff the Contracting Standards Board. The board, in addition to an executive director and intern, is seeking to fund five more positions: a chief procurement officer, staff attorney, accounts examiner, research analyst and trainer. While the state legislature approved extra funding for the new staff positions last year, the funding for 2022 and 2023 later was rescinded.

A statement from the governor’s office last week reiterated Lamont’s stance that his proposal to hire three “new non-partisan state auditors” would strengthen oversight of state contracts. The board additionally would have new authority to refer any contract or procurement to those auditors, the statement said.

Somers said she believes the eastern Connecticut delegation can come together on the issue of the board.

Osten agreed there was common ground. Still, she said, “From my perspective it’s not a local delegation issue, many people in the legislature have come to me to support this bill, who want to see this happen.” The issue of the board has “become more bipartisan as a result of the State Pier, that’s part of why people perceive it as a southeastern delegation issue.”

A federal grand jury has issued a subpoena for documents related to Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis, the former deputy director of Office of Policy and Management, who was assigned to oversee the Connecticut Port Authority’s $235 million State Pier redevelopment project and also led the state’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review. Diamantis resigned after being suspended amid an ethics probe of his daughter’s hiring by Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr. and a school construction contractor. The FBI is seeking documents related to school construction projects, among other things.

Osten said Lamont is not the first governor to refrain from fully funding the board. “No executive wants to have their branch looked at,” she said.

She noted that the auditors don’t have the enforcement quality the board does. “I think the governor’s proposal is conflating issues,” she said. “Auditors just review the documents they get. The contracting standards board has a capacity to require those documents to be presented.”

Senate Republicans agree. Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, and Senate Republican Leader Pro Tempore Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, issued a statement calling on the legislature to reject the governor’s budget for the board.

“The Contracting Standards Board has a unique enforcement authority that the state auditors do not have, a power which would be protected,” the senators said.

Asked whether this conflicts with her proposal to give the board teeth by making it part of the auditor’s office, Somers explained that the bill, if it’s raised by the GAE committee, specifically would allow documents from the board to be presented as well as give the board the authority to make the legislature act on its findings — so keeping the board’s powers intact despite its new umbrella.

Somers acknowledged the “slight difference” between hers and Osten’s bill. She argued that the auditor’s office was a more nonpartisan landing place than legislative management while becoming independent from the Executive Branch.

“I think the board is a good fit in the auditor’s office because it is neutral,” Somers said of the auditor’s office. “You can say legislative management is neutral, but they’ve been controlled by one party for so long, that neutrality tends to waver.”