Lawmakers bristled at a claim that towns bear responsibility for compliance with contract bidding laws during a Monday hearing prompted by a federal investigation into allegations that a former state official coerced municipalities to circumvent those rules.
Members of the legislature’s committees on state finances and education heard updates from acting Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman and Noel Petra, a deputy commissioner who inherited leadership of the school building program after Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration dismissed Konstantinos Diamantis, the former director now at the center of a growing scandal involving construction contracts.
Petra told lawmakers he found the program riddled with problems.
“We found everything from small issues that were easily rectified to large issues that we had to correct,” Petra said. “Some are still ongoing.”
Those included cases where the agency would not honor reimbursement commitments made by Diamantis. Last week, the CT Mirror reported that the state had informed officials in Farmington and Hartford that prior funding agreements were against the law. On Monday, Petra added Stamford to that list.
Petra seemed determined to minimize the role of his office in the project decisions made by towns seeking reimbursement for school construction.
“That has not always been the practice in the past. We’re not talking about the past but going forward, I want everyone to understand: it is up to the municipalities to make their own decisions,” he said.
Municipal responsibilities extend to ensuring compliance with the state and local procurement policies when they approve a contractor to conduct school projects, he said.
“It’s their responsibility to do the right thing,” Petra said of towns. “We can’t possibly be involved in every single municipality’s procurement process … the municipalities have to be responsible for themselves.”
Several lawmakers challenged the comment. Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, interrupted his explanation.
“With all due respect, it sounds like you’re blaming the victims here and I find that offensive,” Cheeseman said.
Rep. Tammy Nuccio, R-Tolland, also objected. Nuccio said local officials in Tolland were told which contractors they would use to rebuild a school if they wanted to avoid delays and qualify for state reimbursements.
“The idea that the responsibility of this falls back on the municipalities when you have the state in your face telling you this is what you’re going to do or you’re going to lose funding, it’s a hypocrisy beyond hypocrisy and it is not something I get behind at all,” she said.
Amid pushback from Nuccio and others, Petra sought to clarify his remarks. He maintained that it was the towns’ responsibility to follow the law, but said he was seeking to reinforce local authority to fend off pressure from the state.
“If there’s anything that comes out of this, we’re just trying to make sure each municipality understands, each district understands they have the authority to say ‘No,’” he said. “Whatever they feel they need to do to push back because I am not here and you will never find me in a conversation where I am defending the former director. There were certainly –”
As Petra sounded likely to comment on Diamantis’ conduct, Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, interrupted. Fonfara, chair of the finance panel, had the difficult task of keeping the subject of the hearing centered on actions taken after Diamantis’ departure.
“Mr. Petra, I caution you in terms of where you may be going with this,” Fonfara said, adding that investigators would make their own determinations about the program. “I would ask that we resist the temptation, including by myself, to weigh in in this area.”
During the hearing, Fonfara also discouraged other lawmakers from interrogating the commissioners on whether Diamantis was adequately supervised by the Lamont administration. When Rep. Chris Ziogas, D-Bristol, asked who had overseen the former director, Fonfara asked him to stay within the confines of Monday’s hearing.
“I know nothing is black and white but I think your question is better suited to be asked in another forum, which I think would be perfectly appropriate but not for this one here today,” Fonfara said.
“If I may push back just slightly,” Ziogas said, “some of the people who are making the statements about reform are the same people who were supposed to be in charge. So I have to ask: what’s different and why?”
The Republican leaders of the House and Senate released a joint press release after the hearing’s conclusion, calling the forum inadequate to address the concerns of citizens.
“The idea that elected legislators ‘resist the temptation’ to inquire about what transpired in the school construction bidding process during a forum about fixes to the system is ridiculous,” House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said.
At the close of the hearing, Fonfara said he expected more hearings given lawmakers’ interest in the matter.
“I don’t think this is going to end at this point,” Fonfara said. “Certainly it’s the beginning.”