A special legislative hearing Monday explored new and tighter controls imposed over state-financed school construction while studiously avoiding any discussion of why the changes are necessary.
By design, the hearing shied from the circumstances surrounding allegations that a former state official, Konstantinos Diamantis, pressured municipalities to hire certain contractors on local school construction projects.
Frustrating some lawmakers, the hearing focused on changes underway at the Office of School Construction Grants & Review, a unit of the state Department of Administrative Services.
Michelle Gilman, who was named commissioner-designate of DAS on Feb. 1, a day before the disclosure the FBI had subpoenaed documents related to Diamantis, answered no questions about Diamantis.
Diamantis was fired on Oct. 28 as the deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, a political appointment, and removed from his civil-service job as the director of school construction grants.
“Can you just simply tell us in your own opinion, what went wrong here?” Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, asked Gilman in the closing minutes of a two-and-a-half-hour hearing.
“I’m sorry, can you elaborate?” she replied.
“You’re here for a reason. And we’ve read a lot of different things,” Martin said, referring to news stories. “In your opinion, can you tell us what went wrong?”
“My concern is moving forward,” she replied.
Gilman and Noel Petra, the deputy commissioner of real estate and construction services, were the only witnesses to testify at an invitation-only hearing of the legislature’s Education Committee and Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, co-chair of the finance committee, said the intent was to explore how DAS is assuring municipalities that school construction hiring is a local decision, not the state’s, and what new controls are in place over the administration of school construction grants.
“I think the key takeaways are that two very capable people have been spending a lot of their time trying to make sure that the integrity of that program forward is strong,” Scanlon said. “And I think they spent a lot of time walking through the, I don’t know, 15 or 20 things they’ve done since taking over to ensure the public that safeguards have been put in place.”
House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, complained after the hearing that the session shed no light on whether Diamantis abused his position or whether the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont had been appropriately attentive.
“It’s more of a dog-and-pony show than it is about getting to the bottom of this and trying to prevent this from happening again. I don’t have any confidence that DAS dealt with this issue swiftly when they knew about it,” Candelora said.
From November 2019 until shortly after Diamantis’ dismissal, the school construction office moved with Diamantis from DAS to the Office of Policy and Management. No municipal official alleged pressure from Diamantis until after his dismissal, though a contractor had complained in 2020 about what he considered interference in hazardous abatement contracting.
“To be frank, I thought a large part of it was a waste of time,” said Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, ranking Republican on finance. “Because we weren’t given the opportunity to address people whom I think could have weighed in more constructively.”
Cheeseman said neither Gilman nor Petra could answer questions about why the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont agreed to move the school construction function to OPM.
The one moment of drama came from Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, a member of the town council in Tolland when the town constructed a new school under an emergency declaration to replaced one deemed structurally unsound. Nuccio said she resented Petra’s assertion that municipalities were the final word on hiring.
Nuccio described Diamantis as saying, “I own this project.”
“And when I have this same person saying, ‘Here’s your team, here’s who you will work with or you will lose emergency funding status, or you will run over [budget] and then the town is going to have to pay more.’ When I’m hearing those things, the fox is in the hen house,” Nuccio said.
Nuccio, a member of the finance committee, did not say whether she believed at the time that Diamantis had exceeded his authority or if she complained of his remarks. She could not be reached immediately after the hearing, which was conducted via video conferencing.
Diamantis, in a telephone interview, said he frequently asserted a strong state interest in school projects where the state was paying more than half the budget.
“But never ever, ever did we get involved with selecting contractors or getting involved in bidding,” Diamantis said.
Tolland, as a rare emergency project, was exempt from competitive bidding. But Diamantis said the contractors were selected locally, as was the case in the other places he has been accused of exerting undue influence.
There is no way, he said, for a single state official to dictate selection of a contractor.
“Keep in mind, the influence would have to influence superintendents, building committees, city councils, mayors, depending on what their system is and what their setup is,” Diamantis said.
Diamantis, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Bristol, had a defender at the hearing: Rep. Chris Ziogas, D-Bristol, a family friend and relative.
“I just wanted to remind the panel that nobody’s been found guilty of anything yet. And we’re talking about reforms and making aspersions on people as to what might have gone wrong, when nothing’s been demonstrated as actually gone wrong,” Ziogas said.
Ziogas had accompanied Diamantis’ daughter, Anastasia Diamantis, when she was interviewed for an ethics inquiry related to the circumstances under which she was hired as an executive assistant to Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr. while Colangelo was lobbying Diamantis and others for help securing raises for prosecutors.
The Office of School Construction Grants & Review is back at DAS, temporarily overseen by Petra while a new director is recruited.
Gilman and Petra said one of the changes made is separating internal auditors from the purview of the director of the school grants office. A contract with a firm to conduct an external audit is expected to be signed this week.
“They’re actually going to be reviewing the audits. So it’s an audit of the audits,” Gilman said.
Petra was cut off when he began to comment on Diamantis.
“You will never find me in a conversation where I’m defending the former director,” Petra said. “There were certainly —”
“Mr. Petra, Mr. Petra, I caution you in terms of where you may be going with this,” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the other finance co-chair. “There are investigations happening, and those folks who are responsible for that will make determinations as they are completed.”
Fonfara said after the hearing that he understood the frustration of committee members about the ground rules for the hearing.
As for Martin’s final query of Gilman about what went wrong, Fonfara said it was a good question, as were others about what preceded Diamantis’ departure.
“They’re legitimate questions. Given the scope of this meeting or hearing, they are not within bounds,” Fonfara said. “It doesn’t mean they are any less important.”