Democrats and Republicans are divided over whether politics and optics or substance and transparency will dominate a legislative hearing Monday about a school construction program at the center of an FBI investigation.
Testimony will come from Commissioner-designate Michelle Gilman and Deputy Commissioner Noel Petra of the Department of Administrative Services, the officials Gov. Ned Lamont has tasked with revamping and restoring confidence in OSCGR, the Office of School Construction Grants & Review.
“We think it’s important for the public to hear an update on what changes have been made to this program in the wake of some very serious and troubling allegations,” said Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chair of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
The same two officials spoke Friday afternoon at a press conference that represented the first comprehensive effort by the Lamont administration to address questions about school construction since the revelation on Feb. 2 that the FBI was investigating.
They outlined the sufficiency of existing checks and balances, changes already made in contracting procedures, and the internal and external audits now under way.
The joint hearing, which will be conducted by three legislative committees with jurisdiction over education, government administration and finances, falls short of demands by the legislature’s Republican minority for creation of a select bipartisan investigative committee.
“It’s to create the political optics they are investigating something,” said House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford. “This is not a bipartisan process. This is not a process seeking to better a system. This is a process to protect the governor.”
Scanlon asked Republicans to keep an open mind about what can be accomplished at the hearing.
“Before we sort of dismiss this as a political stunt, let’s ask questions and hear what they have to say,” Scanlon said. “And I guarantee you, every member of those committees will learn a lot and hopefully have more confidence in the program than they have right now.”
But the Republicans made clear they are as interested in looking backwards as they are forward, and that effort would require testimony from more than two officials who are new to overseeing school construction.
“It appeared that the sole concern seemed to be to get DAS to promise, ‘Cross my fingers, hope to die, none of this is ever going to happen again.’ And what the procedure is going to be going forward,” said Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, ranking Republican on the finance committee.
She said they want details as to the extent to which Konstantinos Diamantis, the former director of OSCGR, pressured municipal officials to use certain contractors, as some local officials have alleged. They also want to ask questions about Diamantis’ involvement in the reconstruction of the State Pier in New London.
On the authority of the governor, his chief of staff, Paul Mounds, fired Diamantis on Oct. 28 from his politically appointed position of deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management and suspended him from his civil-service job overseeing school construction. Diamantis retired rather than be suspended.
Eight days earlier, the FBI subpoenaed records pertaining to school construction and another project under Diamantis’ purview, the reconstruction of the State Pier in New London.
Cheeseman said Diamantis and Melissa McCaw, who resigned last week as secretary of OPM, should be called to testify about how the school construction function was transferred from DAS to OPM. When McCaw hired Diamantis, she agreed to one of his conditions: Keeping his civil-service position and moving the school construction office to OPM.
Republicans raise issues at Gilman confirmation hearing
Gilman got a taste Tuesday of what she can expect Monday, as Republicans challenged the sufficiency of the current audits.
Coincidentally, Gilman was up for her confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee, a key step in the legislature finalizing her nomination as the commissioner of DAS. Her predecessor, Josh Geballe, resigned last month for a position at Yale overseeing a new innovation and entrepreneurial program.
Rep. David Yaccarino, R-North Haven, told Gilman that moving school construction from DAS to OPM made no sense and the Lamont administration never has adequately explained why it was allowed.
“You know, it’s difficult for me to say,” Gilman replied. “I was not here, and I struggle to be a Monday-morning quarterback when I don’t have all of the information as to why decisions were made.”
Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, told her the state should, by audits or other means, be interviewing municipal officials, not just reviewing the books at DAS.
“We shouldn’t use the normal accounting procedures for something that’s extraordinary and has drawn substantial significant scrutiny,” Kelly said.
“Where appropriate, the auditors will have full authority to speak with municipalities and to dig into records as they need to,” Gilman said.
Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, asked Gilman when she first became aware of potential problems in OSCGR.
Gilman said not until October, when Diamantis was removed and it made the news.
He asked what could have been done to identify potential problems sooner.
“It’s hard for me to speak to that,” Gilman replied. “But I think what I can speak to is the steps that we are taking now to ensure that this type of situation does not occur again. We take the transparency of these programs very seriously.”