Sen. Mae Flexer, flanked by House Majority Leader and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, speaks out about a matter unrelated to the Dalio grant.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

The state’s contracting watchdog panel moved one step closer Monday to getting the investigative staff it has sought since its inception 13 years ago.

The Government Administration and Elections Committee voted 16-0 to approve a bill mandating that the five investigative posts sought by the State Contracting Standards Board be filled before the first quarter of the next fiscal year ends, in late September.

Senate Bill 473 also would expand the contracting board’s authority to probe quasi-public agencies and would shield it from any emergency budget reductions once the fiscal year is underway. The latter provision would match protection the legislature has long provided to other major watchdog groups such as the Freedom of Information and Elections Enforcement commissions and the Office of State Ethics.

“I was thrilled it was bipartisan and unanimous, and I hope that means there’s a real shot at having a fully functioning, fully independent contracting standards board in the state of Connecticut after 15 years,” Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Windham, co-chairwoman of the committee, said after the meeting.

Pressure from legislators to strengthen the contracting watchdog has intensified since early February following reports that the FBI is investigating school construction work and other projects once overseen by Gov. Ned Lamont’s former deputy budget director, Konstantinos Diamantis.

A federal grand jury issued a subpoena for all emails, text messages and attachments involving Diamantis and a broad range of construction projects on Oct. 20, eight days before the governor’s office removed Diamantis from his budget post and suspended him without pay from his other role as director of the school construction program.

Contracting board Chairman Lawrence Fox called Monday’s vote “a good sign. … I think we can help to steer the culture of competitive bidding and transparency in the state” government.

But it remained unclear Monday whether Lamont would support the measure.

Prior to the Diamantis scandal, Lamont had said the contracting standards board was performing watchdog functions already performed by other agencies, something that Fox and other advocates for the board have rejected.

The board was the linchpin of the “Clean Contracting” system created in 2007 by the Democrat-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Connecticut’s response to the contracting scandals that drove Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office amid an impeachment inquiry in July 2004. Rowland later served 10 months in federal prison after admitting he accepted about $100,000 in gifts from state contractors and his staff.

The board was empowered to review Executive Branch agencies’ contracting processes to ensure they were transparent, cost-efficient and in compliance with the law. It also would have authority to suspend any procurement effort deemed improper. 

But not long after its creation the state would fall into the Great Recession, state government finances would slip into the red, and legislators and Rell would siphon away nearly all resources, leaving the volunteer standards board with no staff.

An executive director would be hired in 2011, but no additional staff was added as the Democratic governors’ that succeeded Rell — Dannel P. Malloy and Lamont — both questioned the need for the watchdog group.

The contracting board sought permission last spring to begin probing a Connecticut Port Authority contract for renovations to the state pier in New London. The pier is a key staging point to help development of a major offshore wind-to-energy project.

Lawmakers expanded the board’s authority to review this quasi-public agency and included $450,000 to increase staffing. But, in a last-minute concession to Lamont, the legislature then effectively took the funding away.

This year, though, Lamont softened his position somewhat. His new budget proposal in February did not include new funding directly for the contracting board, but the governor did recommend empowering the group to make referrals to the state auditors’ office — which has no enforcement power. Lamont also recommended adding three positions to the auditors’ staff to accommodate any referrals from the contracting board.

Max Reiss, the governor’s communications director, said Monday that “Governor Lamont has been on the record stating his support for the contracting standards board having the tools it needs to be effective.”

But if by “tools” Lamont means access to the auditors’ office but no additional staff, Fox said, the contracting board can’t be effective.

When asked to clarify whether the governor now would fund five investigative posts within the contracting standards board office to work with its executive director, Reiss said, “That’s a legitimate proposal. We will take a look at it.”

Besides mandating that the full investigative staff sought by the contracting board be hired, the bill approved in committee on Monday also would expand the watchdog’s authority to probe all quasi-public agencies created by the legislature, not just the Connecticut Port Authority.

But even if the full legislature and Lamont agree on this measure, it wouldn’t be effective unless — this time — they also fund the new positions.

Fox said Monday that “I’m hopeful” this will happen. “But after last year, I wouldn’t say I’m confident.”

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Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.