House Republicans called Thursday for what they acknowledge would be a politically charged legislative investigation into whether the state Office of School Construction Grants & Review improperly interfered in bidding on local school construction projects.
“We know that there is a criminal investigation now pending. What we also know is that we’re hearing crickets from the other side of the aisle,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.
Standing with other GOP lawmakers, Candelora called for the creation of a select committee to conduct hearings and potentially hire investigative staff to examine the school construction issues that are now the subject of an FBI investigation.
Candelora acknowledged the obvious political aspect of the GOP’s call for an unusual legislative inquiry that would unfold in the midst of campaigns for governor and control of the General Assembly.
“There is naturally always political components to this,” Candelora said. “The Democrats were very quick to constantly use Trump as a litmus test for Republicans running for office. And I’m here to say that we will use corruption as our litmus test.”
Gov. Ned Lamont and House and Senate Democratic leaders said they welcomed hearings by existing legislative committees that have jurisdiction over school construction and financing.
House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said he saw no need for the formation of a special investigative committee, but he endorsed holding legislative hearings about how the Office of School Construction Grants & Review influenced bidding on school construction.
“There’s no disagreement from me that we need to understand and hear from the folks who are now in charge of some of these programs,” Ritter said. “We have a new commissioner over DAS. We have a new person in charge of the school construction program. And so hearing from them I think is really critical.”
The school construction office is part of DAS, the Department of Administrative Services. The DAS released new guidelines Wednesday that sharply limit when municipalities can make use of an emergency bid process for hazardous materials abatement for school construction.
The FBI is investigating the state-financed reconstruction of the State Pier in New London and school construction grants, both areas overseen by Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis before he was removed by Lamont as director of the school grant office and as the deputy at the Office of Policy and Management.
The federal investigation would complicate a legislative inquiry.
“The legislature is not going to be able to get people to come testify about that, when you have to have an ongoing federal investigation,” Ritter said “At some point, they will make their findings public, and they will make arrests, if warranted.”
Senate Democratic leaders, Sens. Martin M. Looney of New Haven and Bob Duff of Norwalk, issued a statement also embracing hearings by existing legislative committees.
“However, the notion that the General Assembly can launch a criminal investigation parallel to and superior to the ongoing federal investigation is naïve and/or deliberately misleading,” they said. “We trust the law enforcement professionals in the federal government to complete their investigation thoroughly and effectively and will not play politics or encourage unrealistic expectations of incendiary revelations.”
Max Reiss, the governor’s communication director, said, “The Lamont administration would welcome public hearings into the school construction program by the General Assembly’s committees of cognizance.”
The legislature has no investigatory staff. It abolished one of the legislative reforms of the 1970s, the creation of a non-partisan and bipartisan Program Review and Investigations Committee that was staffed by analysts and investigators.
When the legislature opened an impeachment inquiry into allegations of bid-rigging and other wrongdoing during the administration of Gov. John G. Rowland, the legislature spent $5 million on outside investigators.
Candelora said the state has spent more than $1 billion in school construction reimbursements over the past three years.
“I think the legislature could find $5 million to start this investigation,” he said.