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Jon Lender: Lamont pulls staffing money out from under contracting watchdog board, days after legislature approved it

Hartford Courant logo Hartford Courant 6/15/2021 Jon Lender, Hartford Courant
Ned Lamont sitting on a table: Hartford, Ct. - 06/09/2021 - Governor Ned Lamont meets in his office with staff on the last day of Connecticut's 2021 legislative session. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com © Mark Mirko/Mark Mirko Hartford, Ct. - 06/09/2021 - Governor Ned Lamont meets in his office with staff on the last day of Connecticut's 2021 legislative session. Photograph by Mark Mirko | mmirko@courant.com

The state legislature last week finally put enough funds in the state budget for a state contracting watchdog agency to hire five new staff members to do the job it was intended to do when it was created in the wake of the corruption scandal that landed ex-Gov. John G. Rowland in federal prison a decade and a half ago.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Chairman Lawrence Fox of the State Contracting Standards Board said last Friday.

But the elation was short-lived.

Gov. Ned Lamont has quickly cut the $450,000 that the House and Senate had approved for the clean government agency for each of the next two fiscal years. Lamont’s office wiped out the funds in a section buried deep in a massive budget implementation bill that was released Tuesday and will be voted on by the House and Senate this week.

“This came directly from the governor’s office,” Sen. Cathy Osten, co-chair of the legislature’s appropriations and Lamont’s fellow Democrat, said Tuesday.

“I truly think that this is a mistake” because the board provides needed “transparency and oversight,” she said. She said she thinks it wasn’t a question of money for Lamont, but of “not wanting the oversight.”

Lamont’s director of communications, Max Reiss, said Tuesday around noon that the governor is “flat funding” the contracting board, and “they’re getting the same level of funding that they received in recent years,” which is the same approach he is taking with “multiple state agencies.”

That leaves the watchdog agency with a staff of one: Executive Director David Guay, its only full-time employee.

“What taxpayers ... do not want is a duplication of services ... across government,” Reiss said. “They want to hire another chief procurement officer for the state. We already have that at the Department of Administrative Services.” Reiss said the state’s contract procurement process is already “transparent.”

Watchdog members say their procurement officer would be a new set of eyes to watch what the DAS’ procurement section does.

This year, members of the legislature’s appropriations committee were persuaded by the arguments of Fox, the contracting board’s chairman, along with its executive director, Guay, and other members of the unusually activist volunteer board.

The result was about $450,000 in additional funds for the watchdog board in the new budget in each of the next two years, to hire five new employees to join Guay: the $130,000 chief procurement officer, a $73,000 research analyst, an $84,000 staff attorney, a $73,000 trainer and a $76,000 accounts examiner.

Now all that would be left, basically, is Guay’s $143,000 salary.

Fox said he is making inquiries about trying to restore the new positions.

But Osten said as a practical matter, “it won’t happen this year.”

“This is disappointing,” Fox said. “This board cannot do its mission without funding. It’s just a loss for the people of the state.”

Fox added, “It’s not surprising that there’s a tension between this board and he executive branch because we’re a watchdog over the executive branch. But it is so important to have this watchdog, because it’s literally billions of dollars that the state does in procurement. And we have, unfortunately, a history in this state where ... a governor [Rowland] went to jail” for accepting favors from state contractors.

Over the years, the contracting standards board has not received much in the way of operating funds or respect from those at the top of state government — who have seemed to treat it as a lingering migraine headache, despite its repeated successes in uncovering irregularities and improprieties in bidding and procurement procedures by executive branch and “quasi-public” agencies. More than once it has barely survived being cut from the state budget completely.

Fox said he thinks maybe the board might do better if it were moved into the legislative branch, where its budget funds would be safer from being canceled as now has happened. The state Auditors of Public Accounts, for example, are part of the legislative branch of government.

“Properly funded, the State Contracting Standards Board is the key to transparent, cost-effective contracting,” said David Glidden, executive director of CSEA SEIU Local 2001, “With this disappointing decision, the administration has clear motives; they don’t want their contracting decisions subject to any scrutiny or oversight. This will undoubtedly lead to wasteful, unwise decisions and taxpayers lose.”

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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