Contracting watchdog concedes it has limited oversight of UConn

Members of the watchdog board that oversees state contracting are not convinced they have the authority to investigate most complaints made against the University of Connecticut.

“Right now, we don’t have jurisdiction, according to all the lawyers,” Julia Lentini Marquis, the Contracting Standards Board’s chief procurement officer, told the group Friday. “Whether anyone likes that or doesn’t like that is sort of moot.”

The public university and teaching hospital – which receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the state each year – informed the watchdog last month that UConn does not fit the legal definition of a “state-contracting agency,” and therefore the watchdog has limited oversight over them.

Marquis said the Office of the Attorney General, which represents the contracting board, agrees with UConn’s conclusion. Marquis declined The Mirror’s request for a copy of that opinion, saying legal advice is exempt from public disclosure.

“If they say we don’t have jurisdiction, then that’s that. The attorney general says it – that’s that,” said Thomas G. Ahneman, a member of the board and engineer from southwest Connecticut.

The contracting board was created in 2007 as one of the reforms enacted in response to the scandals that drove Gov. John G. Rowland from office. The law allows anyone who bids on a state contract to contest its award by complaining to the board, which determines whether an investigation is warranted.

The law also requires state agencies to go through a rigorous process before privatizing services provided by state employees. UConn says the contracting board has oversight over the university only when it seeks to outsource work done by state employees.

The debate over the board’s authority was prompted by a complaint about how the winner of a multi-million-dollar contract for janitorial work was selected. The complaint alleged that university administrators improperly reversed a selection committee’s initial decision to give the new contract to GCA Services Group, which had the existing contract.

The allegations — made by GCA and an anonymous member of the selection committee — were deemed serious enough by a subcommittee of the watchdog agency to notify state prosecutors.

State prosecutors have since said they will not be seeking criminal prosecution, but UConn’s Office of General Counsel was not pleased that the contracting board referred the allegations to state prosecutors.

The “decision to make a criminal referral would inevitably interfere with the OGC’s ability to conduct its review,” attorneys Patrick F. Nevins and Michael Sullivan wrote the agency in a Jan. 22 letter.

But several members of the contracting board said they have a problem trusting UConn to police itself.

“So we don’t have jurisdiction over what looks to be kind of a smelly procurement,” said Robert Rinker, a member of the board and recent executive director of the union that represents state employees, the Connecticut State Employees Association (CSEA). “It just raises problems with people because of the conduct of that evaluation, and the oversight of that isn’t with anybody.”

Karen Buffkin, counsel for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, reminded the board that a disappointed bidder could still file a whistleblower complaint with the state auditors if they suspected wrongdoing.

“Those remedies still exist,” she said.

Some of the members on the contracting didn’t think that was enough.

“Should we be deferring to someone else’s monitoring instead of ours?” asked Charles W. Casella Jr., another member of the board and a retired CSEA member. “They want to continue operating as they are and not be subject to oversight.”

Members of the contracting board decided to have one of their committees come up with recommendations on how the board should handle future complaints against the state’s public colleges.

Brenda Cisco, a member of the board and a former budget chief for Gov. M. Jodi Rell, said she believes the only way to resolve any uncertainty is to ask the legislature to clarify the law and spell out whether the board has oversight over UConn.

“”It has to be the legislature. At the end of the day, it’s really not clear,” she said. “I would feel much better if we had some clarity.”

“They’re either going to say include them, or cut them loose,” said Ahneman.

No clarifying legislation has yet been raised this session, which ends the first week of June.

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