The governor’s administration expects external auditors to complete an investigation into the troubled school construction program by the end of April, acting Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman said during a Tuesday confirmation hearing.
Gilman, a veteran of state government, appeared via Zoom before the legislature’s Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee a month after Gov. Ned Lamont appointed her to head the agency following the departure of its former commissioner, Josh Geballe.
Throughout the hearing, she fielded questions from lawmakers on the Office of School Construction Grants & Review, now at the center of a federal grand jury investigation into allegations that a former official, Kosta Diamantis, circumvented bidding laws on construction and material disposal contracts.
The office is once again part of DAS after being relocated to the Office of Policy and Management. Gilman opened her remarks by promising transparency to lawmakers.
“We recognize, clearly, the value of working with you. You deserve transparency, you deserve answers and I pledge to you, if confirmed to this position, that you will have direct access to our team,” Gilman said.
Her hearing comes after repeated calls from Republican lawmakers for a legislative inquiry into the school construction program and Democratic legislative leaders are planning public hearings on the matter later this month.
Gilman said the administration was also taking steps and was in the process of contracting with at least one independent auditor, which she expected would be finalized in the next few days.
“We’ve also worked very closely with the governor’s office to expedite the timeline by which we bring on those firms so that we can move forward on the work quickly,” Gilman said. She said the goal was to complete the audit by the end of April. “It’s a very aggressive schedule but the firm or firms that we choose will need to meet that timeline in order to be selected.”
Some lawmakers had concerns about the scope of the planned audits. Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly repeatedly sought assurances from Gilman that the investigation would also look into the municipal side of the relevant contracts.
“The guiding principle here should be getting to the truth, not getting to a fast answer,” Kelly said. “Putting a timeline on investigation and accounting is not the purpose here. I think the purpose here is to get transparency, to get to the truth.”
Gilman declined to say she would direct the independent auditors in their investigation, but said the review would be thorough.
“My comments around the speed of this audit is to ensure we get answers not only for our agencies but also for you as stakeholders in the process. But make no mistake that this will be a very comprehensive audit,” Gilman said. “It will not be on a fast track in terms of a sloppy process.”
Gilman is likely to assume control of the agency during a period of turbulence both at DAS and in state government in general. Diamantis was fired in October as the federal investigation began and as Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo faced scrutiny for hiring Diamantis’ daughter while seeking raises for himself and his division. Colangelo has since announced his retirement. Meanwhile, Lamont announced last week that OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw would step down to pursue a “fresh start” as East Hartford’s finance director.
Lamont said last week that Diamantis, formerly a DAS employee, had come to OPM at McCaw’s request and that the school construction office had come with him because, “I guess mid-construction, they figured it was better to transition that over.”
During the hearing, lawmakers asked Gilman for her opinion of that move. She was reluctant to weigh in as she was not working for the agency at the time.
“It’s difficult for me to say. I was not here. I struggle to be a Monday morning quarterback when I don’t have all of the information as to why decisions were made,” Gilman said. There were no plans to relocate the program again, she said.
Gilman had not been working at either of the two agencies at the time. She most recently was deputy to Geballe in his role as state chief operating officer. However, Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, worried about her proximity to the scandal and the people close to it.
“Many have since left or have been dismissed. I’ll be honest, and this isn’t necessarily a commentary on you but I’m a little bit concerned that someone who was close to it is here before us today to be the next commissioner,” Perillo said. “That’s not your fault. It just is.”
Despite opposition from Perillo and Rep. Kathy Kennedy, R-Milford, the committee approved of Gilman’s appointment on a 6 to 2 vote, allowing her legislative approval process to continue.