The chair of the state Contracting Standards Board pushed back Friday against a proposal by Gov. Ned Lamont, which he called an “Orwellian” attempt to functionally end the contracting watchdog agency.
Since at least last year, the Lamont administration has been at odds with the board, which has authority to halt state purchasing if they’re deemed illegal. A budget implementer bill passed late in the session effectively reduced the agency’s operating funds by $400,000 and Lamont preserved that cut in his budget proposal this year.
However, it was a separate proposal by the governor, which board chair Lawrence Fox told lawmakers on the Appropriations Committee he viewed as Orwellian. The language would add staff to the state Auditors of Public Accounts and transfer the board’s enforcement authority there.
“Separate and apart from our funding, they actually end the board– the contracting standards board. It’s a very — ‘Orwellian,’ is the word that comes to my mind because it’s not straight up,” Fox said during a public hearing.
Fox told lawmakers it bordered on irony that the proposal was put together just days before stories about a federal investigation into contracting projects overseen by a former administration official, Kosta Diamantis, began to dominate the news cycle.
The board dates back to the contracting scandal that led to the resignation and eventual conviction of former Gov. John Rowland on corruption charges. Fox said the small watchdog agency has been a target for governors of both parties.
He described a state government that does not take competitive bidding rules seriously.
“Seventy four percent of the time, we’re issuing personal service agreements in this state worth billions of dollars without competitive contracting,” Fox said.
“There’s a problem,” he added later, “and we need to get on top of it and we need the staff to do it. But the answer in this governor’s bill is, ‘You know what? Let’s not have them do it all.’ So the impact, if this goes through the way it is, is that the board is basically dead. It’ll exist in name only.”
Sen. Cathy Osten, a Sprague Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said lawmakers were considering moving the board under legislative control.
“We’re trying to put the same guardrails around the state Contracting Standards Board that are in theory around the ethics and the freedom of information and some other organizations,” Osten said. “We’re just trying to figure out that sweet spot that gives you autonomy to do what we expect you to do and still allow us to protect you so you don’t get cut.”
Max Reiss, the governor’s chief spokesman, said the administration looked forward to further discussions with the chair of the contracting standards board and disputed the notion that Lamont’s proposal weakened the oversight agency.
“Gov. Lamont’s proposal strengthens the mission and role of the board with additional audit support, exactly the kind of measure which has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans,” Reiss said. “Any characterization the contrary is mistaken.”