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Jon Lender: Watchdog Agency May Get Ax, Just As It's Begun Looking Into Tech-Schools Scandal

Connecticut's watchdog agency for contracting — created by lawmakers after the Rowland corruption scandal, but neglected and starved for funds in the decade since — may finally be washed away this year as another victim of Connecticut's all-engulfing budget disaster.

The State Contracting Standards Board is supposed to save taxpayers money by policing contract-procurement practices. But it found zeros next to its name last week on revised state budget proposals by the governor and legislative Democrats and Republicans for 2017-18.

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The agency narrowly dodged the budget ax last year, but the current fiscal mess is much worse — and now the watchdog board's members and advocates are discouraged.

"We were obviously sorely disappointed," board Chairwoman Claudia A. Baio said Thursday. In budget hearings earlier this year, she said, legislators seemed to recognize the agency's revived efforts since the governor appointed people to fill long-standing vacancies that had crippled the board in recent years.

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"We thought we'd made a lot of strides, and we were encouraged by the first budget proposal" — which included the $275,000 operating budget to pay for two staff members and office expenses. (One of those positions is now vacant, so only the $138,000-a-year executive director, David Guay, is left.)

Then came last week and the revised budget plans — which all reached the same conclusion summarized most succinctly on page 33 of the Senate Republicans' proposal: "Eliminate the Contracting Standards Board."

Baio, an attorney who is the mayor of Rocky Hill, said she is "still hopeful" because "things are so ever-changing" in budget negotiations. But how it will turn out, she said, "I just think it's too difficult to predict."

One legislative operative for a legislative caucus said the proposed budget revision doesn't mean certain death for the board, because these things are slapped together in haste and are subject to change.

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"It's easy to throw zeros at it for now, and then turn it around," the operative said.

Probe Over?

If the contracting board is killed, it will be at a moment when the agency has finally found an issue that captured major public interest — the uproar over state tech-school Superintendent Nivea Torres' payment of $4.5 million in taxpayer funds since 2014 to a marketing firm called The Pita Group, which touted her as an "inspirational ... thought-leader" and wrote her tweets for her on Twitter.

Torres resigned April 24 from her $169,000-a-year post atop the Connecticut Technical High School System, after having been suspended with pay over what education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell called "various areas of concern" about the payments to the Pita firm.

Wentzell in March got the state Department of Administrative Services to conduct an investigation into the situation with an emphasis on the personnel involved — including a $123,000-a-year subordinate of Torres, who remains on paid suspension — and that probe hasn't been completed yet, a DAS spokesman said this week.

But the contracting standards board decided in recent weeks that DAS, itself, has some questions it needs to answer in the Torres controversy — because DAS, as the state's main contracting-procurement agency, presides over a system under which Torres was able to hire Pita without first having to solicit competitive bids and then choose the lowest qualified bidder.

As reported by The Courant, Pita was hired by Torres without bidding off a DAS-created "master list" of 42 public relations and marketing vendors. DAS rules state that agencies are "encouraged" to obtain three competitive quotes from vendors on the list before awarding a contract to one of them, but education officials say Torres didn't do that.

Members of the State Contracting Standards Board have prepared a list of questions, including whether it's "appropriate" to retain vendors of nonessential services "such as media, marketing and public relations" on the basis of such a "master contract with 42 vendors."

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Another question prepared by the board is: "Is it appropriate to encourage three bids/quotes, but not to require three bids/quotes?"

Those and other queries, drafted by contracting board member Robert Rinker, are ready to be fired off to DAS.

But at a meeting this month, the board decided first to send letters asking the status of several other agencies' pending or potential investigations into the tech-school imbroglio. Recipients included the state Department of Education, DAS, the governor's budget office, and the attorney general. The U.S. Department of Education and the state Auditors of Public Accounts have also been looking at the situation.

Baio said Thursday that once her agency gets those answers, it will take up the matter "at our next board meeting [in June] and we'll see where we go from there."

But what if the board isn't reinstated in the budget by the General Assembly and governor?

"Well," she said, "that one's still in this fiscal year" — which ends June 30 — "so we should still be able to meet."

Question Of Commitment

The watchdog agency's predicament is just one example of what happens in the budgetary bloodletting of fashioning a $20-billion annual budget plan when the state faces a huge shortfall in revenue.

A reform once called important can be forgotten at a time like this — especially if it wasn't as important to you as you originally said it was.

The 14-member contracting standards board was born after the 2004 scandal over lucrative benefits that then-Gov. John G. Rowland received from businessmen who had dealings with the state. Rowland was sent to federal prison for 10 months.

In 2006, Rowland's successor and former lieutenant governor, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, created the contracting board by executive order. In 2007, the General Assembly passed a law solidifying the board's powers to oversee and audit state procurement efforts as part of a clean-contracting law.

Then-Senate President Pro Tempore Don Williams said the bill was intended to make the contracting process "more transparent, and hopefully make it impossible in the future for the corruption of the state contracting process that really rocked this state."

Those resolute words soon faded, though. In the years that followed, it almost seemed that the new board was an unwanted result of a moment of reformist ardor that legislators and executive-branch officials soon wished they could forget.

The board's continual pronouncements that state agencies needed to do more work in-house — instead of farming it out to expensive consultants and other outside contractor — were constantly ignored.

Some officials of executive-branch agencies considered the board a pain in the neck and a mouthpiece for state-employee unions whose representatives are part of its composition.

Disregard for the panel grew so bad that four of its seats were left empty starting in 2014, causing eight of the board's 13 scheduled meetings in 2015 to be canceled for lack of a legal quorum. It took until 2016 for Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to appoint people to fill three of the vacancies, and for Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, to fill the last.

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The board began to meet regularly during 2016 and embarked what Baio referred to as its recent upswing.

Overall, the board's backers say that it's a relative bargain and is worth keeping now that it's finally starting to look like it may realize its potential.

"The elimination of the SCSB in conjunction with an increase in state privatization should give all taxpayers pause," said Ben Phillips, communications director for the big state-employee union CSEA SEIU Local 2001. "By eliminating this board, the General Assembly and the governor would be abolishing the watchdog that ensures private contracts are in the public's best interest. If ever there was a need for greater accountability in state contracting, it is now."

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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