House Republicans continued Thursday to demand a legislative inquiry into the ongoing scandal involving the role of a former state official in influencing which companies received contracts in school construction projects.
During a state Capitol press conference, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora called for an eight-member committee to investigate how the state awards contracts for construction jobs in response to an ongoing federal investigation of Kosta Diamantis, the former head of the executive branch office that had overseen school building projects.
Candelora made a similar request last week and said legislative Democrats had responded with “crickets.”
“This is not going to go away. It is going to overshadow the entire session and Republicans want to make that clear,” Candelora said. “Even though this building may be closed, we are still going to fight for good government.”
Democratic leaders of both legislative chambers said Thursday it was appropriate for the General Assembly’s relevant committees to ensure the transparency of the expensive school construction program. Candelora said the program has spent $1 billion over the past three years.
Senate President Martin Looney and Majority Leader Bob Duff said a review of the details of the program was a fitting response by the legislature. But they called “naive” or “deliberately misleading” any suggestion that lawmakers could launch a criminal investigation on par with the one currently being conducted by the FBI, which in addition to school projects is examining the renovation of the State Pier in New London.
“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,” Looney and Duff said.
House Speaker Matt Ritter said the committees of cognizance were already preparing to hold hearings, which he expected to occur sometime next month. He said it was important for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to ensure the legitimacy of the school construction program and make any necessary statutory changes before the session concludes in May.
However, Ritter was not inclined to form the sort of eight-person inquiry into Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration that Candelora had requested.
“The committee that’s being talked about is what was formed for an impeachment inquiry. I just don’t think this is where we are,” Ritter said. “I’m open to suggestions but the announcement today was not in the spirit of ‘Let’s work together.’ It was trying to elect [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Bob Stefanowski.”
During Thursday’s press conference, Candelora also said the scandal around contracting did not currently warrant talk of impeachment, but he was candid about the political ramifications of an investigation into the administration of a Democratic governor. He pointed to the scandals that led to the resignations of former Republican Gov. John Rowland and former Senate Minority Leader Lou DeLuca.
“Democrats were chomping at the bit to take down a Republican governor. With Senator DeLuca, I was newly elected and quite astonished that they were collapsing over themselves to persecute a man of 30 years of public service,” Candelora said. “So yes, there’s overtones to politics to all of that and I don’t deny it.”
Candelora said the legislature should dedicate $5 million to investigate how the state directed as much as $1 billion in school construction funding. Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said all Connecticut taxpayers should want answers.
“It’s their money that may have been wasted, misappropriated,” Cheeseman said. “If I know that there was a bid where someone was paying above what they should have done, that’s coming out of my taxpayers’ pocket.”
Max Reiss, Lamont’s spokesman, said the governor was open to a legislative investigation.
“The Lamont administration would welcome public hearings into the school construction program by the General Assembly’s committees of cognizance. Additionally, the Lamont administration has and will continue to be cooperative with federal authorities in a separate investigation,” Reiss said. “Governor Lamont took swift action to remove Mr. Diamantis when ethical improprieties were brought to his attention. It was also Gov. Lamont’s initiation of an independent review which led to additional accountability. Gov. Lamont has zero tolerance for the types of actions which have been exposed.”