State watchdog launches investigation into vo-tech contracts

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

The State Contracting Standards Board discusses Friday morning how to move forward with an investigation into contracts awarded by the state’s vocational-technical school system.

The watchdog board that oversees state contracts will investigate whether Connecticut’s vocational-technical school system improperly spent millions of dollars over the past three years on marketing and consulting contracts with two Rocky Hill-based firms.

The State Contracting Standards Board voted Friday morning to formally request information from the State Department of Education about how the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS) procured at least 13 contracts from the firms – worth about $4.9 million over three years – and how those contracts were approved.

This is the first public investigation that has been launched into the contracts in question, which were between CTHSS and two organizations based at the same address in Rocky Hill: The Pita Group, a marketing and advertising firm, and Kozak & Salina, LLC, a government relations, lobbying and consulting firm.

“The questions that we’ve asked, or will ask, should be in the public domain,” said Bob Rinker, the board member who first brought forward the issue. “The question is, was there (a request for proposal) issued for the contracts? That’s not a secret. That’s either a yes or a no. I think all of these questions are information that is in the public. I’m not looking at whether or not somebody handed a suitcase of money to somebody in order to have this contract. We’re not looking at that.”

Two other investigations are being conducted by the Department of Administrative Services and the U.S. Department of Education, both of which were first reported in the Hartford Courant last month.

The first investigation to be launched, led by the Department of Administrative Services, came at the request of the State Department of Education, said Jeff Beckham, a spokesman for DAS. He said the state education department asked DAS to “look at the personnel involved” in the contracts.

The personnel – two of the system’s top administrators, including system superintendent Nivea L. Torres – were put on paid leave by state Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell on March 16.

Education department officials declined further comment, citing the ongoing investigation. They also declined to provide any additional details to the contracting board before their meeting Friday.

“The agreements in question are subjects of an ongoing investigation and we believe it would be inappropriate for CSDE to discuss this matter in the public forum while the investigation is pending,” wrote Peter M. Haberlandt, the education department’s legal affairs director, in a letter to the contracting board’s executive director, David Guay.

Despite the education department’s stance, the contracting board decided to press ahead with its investigation.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to ask the questions and make them say, ‘No, we can’t answer them right now,’ because that is our role – to ask those questions,” board member Jean Morningstar said.

“If they want to hide behind the (DAS) investigation, they can certainly do that,” Rinker said. “And that will be our public report, that they’re hiding behind an investigation as opposed to coming forward.”

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

David Guay, executive director of the State Contracting Standards Board

Haberlandt did, however, provide the board with copies of the contracts between CTHSS and the firms, which are public documents.

Board Chair Claudia Baio said all of the information they are asking for is considered public, and warrants a response. Beckham, the DAS spokesman, said he “can’t think of any reason” the state education department would not be able to answer most questions from the contracting board while the DAS investigation is ongoing.

Gregg Adler, an attorney representing Torres, said she has not yet been advised about the contracting board’s investigation, but is participating in the DAS investigation. He added that Torres is “at a disadvantage” in handling these investigations because, as part of her suspension, she does not have access to her email account, office resources or staff.

One of the board’s principal concerns is whether the contracts, which were signed by Torres, were awarded without using a request for proposal – a competitive bidding process for contracts that state agencies are required to use. The governor’s budget office has the ability to grant agencies permission to award a contract without using the process, but Chris McClure, a spokesman for the office, said it has “no record” of any waivers for the system.

If CTHSS awarded the contracts without an RFP, it would be the first time since the contracting board’s inception that an agency has been found to circumvent the process, Guay said.

“What that means is that the State Contracting Standards Board has a lot of work to do,” Baio said. “We’ll have to figure out as a board the most appropriate way to proceed in accordance with our statutory charge.”

The board, citing a statutory obligation to investigate, is seeking answers to these questions:

  • Were there requests for proposal issued for the contracts? If not, did OPM grant permission to single-source this contract?
  • What are the contracts and their terms?
  • Who prepared the contracts for the state? And who approved the contracts?
  • Were the contract terms consistent with the RFP or request for waiver, if applicable?
  • Were there any amendments or extensions of the contract? If so, what was the approval process?
  • Did the Attorney General’s office review and approve these contracts?

The questions surrounding the millions of dollars in spending come while the 17-school system has endured steady cuts to its roughly $170 million budget in recent years as lawmakers have worked to balance the state’s finances.

Most recently, the governor’s budget office told the system less than one month before the start of the 2017 fiscal year that it would be required to achieve an additional $4.9 million in savings over the course of the year.

The result has been uncertainty for the 11,000 students in the system. The state education board even went as far as to approve a plan last October that would close two schools in the system if CTHSS were hit with a cut of 10 percent or greater in its state funding. The governor’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year calls for cutting the system’s state funding by 3 percent.

What’s in the contracts?

The Pita Group is a routine vendor to many state agencies, records from the state comptroller’s website show. Pita has received about $7.48 million in contracts from all state agencies since the beginning of the 2014 fiscal year, but more than half of that has come from CTHSS.

The state vocational-technical school system tasked The Pita Group with running much of its public relations and marketing operations, including its social media accounts, at a cost of $4.93 million to the system since the start of the 2014 fiscal year.

CTHSS paid the firm $1.43 million in the 2014 fiscal year, $2.44 million in the 2015 fiscal year and $959,000 in the 2016 fiscal year, according to data from the state comptroller’s website. The contracts given to the contracting board show the CTHSS is set to pay the firm $453,000 in the current fiscal year.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

Bob Rinker, a contracting board member, brought the issue to the board’s attention.

The contracts also show most of the money has gone to traditional marketing services, such as creative development, public relations and strategic consulting. John F. Droney, a Hartford attorney representing Pita, said they are “more than happy to cooperate” with all ongoing investigations, saying the contracting process is “an open book.”

Kozak & Salina, LLC, which is also under investigation, appeared in far fewer contracts than Pita, but was initially awarded $36,800 to provide “external relations and strategic consulting services” for eight months of the 2015 fiscal year. The system then agreed to pay Pita a sum of $55,200 for Kozak & Salina’s services during the entirety of 2016 fiscal year. Kozak & Salina was not included in any contracts with CTHSS after that point.

One element of the contracts with The Pita Group shows the company was paid thousands of dollars to run the personal Twitter and LinkedIn accounts belonging to Torres, the system’s superintendent, in an effort to develop her brand.

“We recommend using Dr. Nivea L. Torres’ personal Twitter feed to position Dr. Torres as an inspirational thought-leader to parents, students, the community and media,” a September 2014 contract document said.

Since September 2014, The Pita Group has managed her Twitter account at a cost initially estimated in the contract at $8,910 to $12,420 over the course of a year. Torres handed over control of her LinkedIn account to Pita in February 2016 at a cost of $11,475 for the remaining five months of the 2016 fiscal year, one contract states.

The group continued to operate her Twitter through the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, though its cost was bundled with the total cost of operating the school system’s social media accounts. LinkedIn was moved into the bundle as well for the 2017 fiscal year. In total, the system agreed to pay about $192,105 for management services for all social media accounts, including Torres’s, from the 2015 fiscal year to the 2017 fiscal year.

Administrators suspended

Wentzell placed Torres and Athanasula Tanasi, another administrator, on paid leave after an internal audit by the state education department raised questions, Smith said.

The contracting board’s Rinker, who also is a former executive director of CSEA/SEIU Local 2001, one of the state’s largest employee unions, said it is atypical for a state agency of the education department’s size to request an outside investigation of its personnel.

Both Torres and Tanasi are continuing to receive six-figure salaries while the investigations are ongoing. As the top system administrator, Torres was paid $169,093 last year, while Tanasi was paid $131,299.

Torres has been a rising star in the state education system and the Latino community. She was in the running to fill the vacant state education commissioner position in 2015, and had strong support from a number of prominent Latino leaders at the time.

She has received several awards during her time as CTHSS superintendent. In 2014, she was named the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission’s Latina Citizen of the Year. The Hartford Business Journal recognized her work at CTHSS in a 2015 “Women in Business” feature.

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