Lamont Strips Oversight of State Contracts, Port Authority Reforms

Funding to staff a board that oversees state contracts and procurements was eliminated in a move the board’s chairman said could be a “fatal blow.”

The State Contracting Standards Board was set to see $454,355 to fund five additional staff positions funded in a budget approved by state lawmakers last week, but a bill to implement the budget – which lawmakers convened a special session this week to approve – allowed that funding to lapse back into the general fund.

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Gov. Ned Lamont removed the funding after lawmakers approved the budget last week. She said it was the first year that she had been in office that they were even able to get the funding out of the Appropriations Committee and up for a vote as a part of the biennial budget.

“It wasn’t about the money,” Osten said. “[The governor’s office doesn’t] like the oversight component of it. They nor any other executive branch like having an oversight board like this. It was the same under the Malloy administration and under the Rell administration.”

In an email, Lamont spokesman Max Reiss said Connecticut has “one of the most transparent processes in the nation” for contracts. He said contracts, proposals and RFPs are all public record and available for anyone to see, and members of the executive branch are available to legislators for questions and to testify on areas of concern.

“What Gov. Lamont will not support is a duplication of services to taxpayers in the interest of government modernization and what our residents demand from their government,” he said.

State Contracting Standards Board Chair Larry Fox said that, while the online portal that allows the public to see proposals and contracts is a positive, it only includes a fraction of state contracts given that contracts not put out for a competitive bid are not posted there.

Executive Director David Guay is currently the only paid staff member of the State Contracting Standards Board, and the board was requesting funding for a procurement director, staff attorney and three other positions. And public access isn’t the same as oversight, he said.

“Some agencies do a very good job, but some agencies do a terrible job when it comes to actually running a competitive bidding process,” Fox said. “We found a lot of problems in particular with some of the quasi-publics, who don’t have the resources, frankly, to do a competitive bid process.”

With Guay set to retire next year, the removal of funding for additional staff could be a “fatal blow” that stops the volunteer board from being able to function, Fox said.

“This board cannot do its job without the funding,” Fox said.

Fox said the 13 volunteer board members are extremely active, and each brings their own experience in areas like accounting and procurement that help in reviewing contracts. But without staff, the board can only raise flags about potential issues, and can’t follow up on deficiencies – a process he said is meant to help agencies improve, not to play “gotcha.”

Established in the wake of the corruption scandal that led to Gov. John Rowland serving time in prison, the board has an “immense” amount of authority to look into state procurements, even to void a contract after holding hearings, Fox said. But the board has never had the resources to do it.

The implementer bill that removes the funding for the contracting board also includes a provision that will give the board oversight over the embattled Connecticut Port Authority – a provision that was removed earlier from a bill aimed at reforming the authority.

Attorney General William Tong told the contracting board in February that it had limited authority to review quasi-public agencies like the Port Authority, and the board suspended its review of a $523,000 ‘success fee’ the authority paid to a contractor it hired partly to find an operator for the state pier.

Tong then announced that his office was investigating the Port Authority over whistleblower complaints made to the Auditors of Public Accounts, including a success fee.

Fox said it’s a positive that the board now has the authority to look into complaints about contracting and procurements at the quasi-public port authority, but it doesn’t mean much when the board doesn’t have “even a skeletal professional staff” to look at allegations.

Osten said she thought the board played an important role, and that she would seek to restore funding next year. Fox said the legislature could go even further, taking the board out of the executive branch and making it a creature of the legislature instead, like the Auditors of Public Accounts. There’s an obvious conflict for a body meant to scrutinize the executive branch to be a part of it, he said.

“I would say that OPM under [Secretary] Melissa McCaw has paid more attention to procurements than past administrations,” Fox said. “To me, that’s what we’re going for – you want them to do a better and better job.”

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