UConn asserts contracting watchdog has only limited power over it

UConn's Storrs campus

CTMirror.org file photo

UConn\’s Storrs campus

The University of Connecticut has told the watchdog agency that oversees state contracting that it has only limited authority to investigate allegations made against the school.

“The constituent units [of higher education] are not ‘state contracting agencies’” under the law, UConn’s Office of the General Counsel wrote to the state Contracting Standards Board in an email earlier this month.

UConn receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the state each year for operating costs and construction projects.

The Contracting Standards 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 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 argues the contracting agency has oversight over the university only when it seeks to outsource work done by state employees to private contractors.

This UConn opinion was prompted by allegations about how the winner of a multi-million-dollar contract for janitorial work was selected. The complaint to the standards board alleged that university administrators improperly reversed a selection committee’s initial decision to award the contact 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 for it to notify state prosecutors.

That notification didn’t sit well with UConn’s Office of General Counsel.

“The OGC viewed this action as unwarranted…The subcommittee’s 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.

The university’s internal investigation concluded that UConn had “deviated from its standard procurement guidelines.”

However, the investigation “found no basis to suggest any criminal behavior or corruption occurred at any point during this process.”

Regardless, the university decided that, “these deviations are sufficiently serious to support the university’s decision to reconsider its recommendation to award the contract to DTZ.” 

In the meantime, the current janitorial contract with GCA Services Group has been extended through May.

While this dispute may soon be resolved, the contracting board will have to determine whether it agrees with UConn’s conclusion that public colleges and universities are exempt from much of the board’s oversight.

Julia Lentini Marquis, the chief procurement officer for the standards board, said the law on the question is not clear.

“The legislative intent isn’t clear,” she said during an interview. “There hasn’t been resolution on the matter.”

The board is expected to take up the question at its meeting on March 6.

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About Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline won two first prizes from the national Education Writers Association for her work in 2012 – one in beat reporting for her overall education coverage, and the other in investigative reporting on a series of stories revealing questionable monetary and personnel actions taken by the Board of Regents for Higher Education. In 2016, she was a finalist in the EWA competition for single-topic coverage for her reporting on how schools are funded in Connecticut. Before coming to The Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College. She and her husband, son and two dogs live in Hartford.