Face the Facts: What Does the State Contracting Standards Board Do?

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Just like the infamous quote from All the President's Men, "follow the money."

Back in the 1970s, government sources told Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post it would lead them to details where they could solve the Watergate scandal.

Following the money is exactly what federal investigators are doing now in Connecticut, as they look into the school construction scandal and big questions about the billion-dollar state pier renovation that's already behind schedule and millions over budget.

But where are the watchdogs in our own government and what elected officials are making sure our tax money is being spent wisely and ethically?

NBC Connecticut's Mike Hydeck spoke with State Sen. Mae Flexer about an effort the shed some light on how contracts are awarded and how billion of dollars are spent.

Mike Hydeck: "So for people who haven't heard of it, remind us what is the State Contracting Standards Board and what would you like to see changed?"

Mae Flexer: "So the State Contracting Standards Board was created 15 years ago by the state legislature in the wake of the scandals in the Rowland administration that led to Governor Rowland's resignation. And it was put in place to be an independent watchdog agency that would look out at the state's contracting process. As we know, state contractors were the root of the scandal involving former governor Rowland and so this was part of a series of reforms that the legislature put in place back then, to make sure people could have more confidence in the ways the government entered into contracts and making sure there was an independent entity looking over the contracting process. Unfortunately, over the course of 15 years, that entity has never really been fully funded and never been fully allowed to function. And so this year, as the legislature has for several years, we're really trying to make that Contracting Standards Board fully staffed, so that they can watch out for every contract that the State of Connecticut enters into, so that everyone in Connecticut can have confidence in our contracting process."

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Mike Hydeck: "So let's give a hypothetical here. Say it gets fully funded. And the State Board of Contracts finds that contracts were actually funneled to a friend of a state official, like are alleged right now, is what we're looking at. And that state official got a kickback or some favors. What kind of powers would the board have under a perfect scenario, as far as you're concerned?"

Mae Flexer: "They would have the ability to stop those contracts. They would be able to enter into that procurement process and they would catch that in all likelihood, before anything like that could happen. They would be an independent entity that would be reviewing these contracts, that would be looking at the full process. So who who put in bids? What were the requirements for the bids? And how was the selection of the particular contractor, how was that contractor chosen? And so the Contracting Standards Board would be empowered to step in, in any process, where there was something nefarious going on, and we would catch those incidents much quicker."

Mike Hydeck: "So as you know, and I'm sure you're full aware is quasi-public agencies seem to come up year after year, problems with contracts and lots of money. The Port Authority, running the project for the state pier, has questions about them paying out huge consulting fees, other expenditures should be questionable. Should quasis be held to stricter standards? And would that contract board be overseeing them, too?"

Mae Flexer: "So the bill that we've put forward this week in the Government Administration and Elections Committee does cover the quasi-public agencies. The legislature last year was working diligently to make sure we have particular oversight over the Connecticut Port Authority. Look, I think we have to be conscious of the reason we have quasi-public agencies is a recognition that sometimes state government and state agencies can act slowly. And so quasi-publics exist in different areas, so that they can be a little bit more nimble and a little bit more responsive. And their processes can be quicker and a little bit more responsive. But that does not mean they don't need some oversight. And clearly, there are some quasi-public agencies that have done a wonderful job and execute their contracts in a way that we can all have confidence in. But there are some like the Port Authority where there have been really challenging mistakes that have been made, and that's where I think the oversight of the Contracting Standards Board would protect Connecticut taxpayers, would give us confidence in all of our quasi-public agencies. And hopefully, the board can work with the quasi-public agencies in a way that they can still maintain the nimbleness that is a part of their nature of being a different branch of state government."

Mike Hydeck: "Nimbleness is very important. But when you have such a huge cache of money to get a project done, it seems oversight needs to be a little bit more significant. Have you gotten any pushback from quasis on this proposed legislation?"

Mae Flexer: "We did. We did hear some concerns from quasi-public agencies about this legislation. And I think, you know, I think the legislature is willing to work with them in terms of being able to maintain their nimbleness. But I do think it's important that the public of Connecticut can have confidence in all the contracts that are entered into in their name. And so hopefully we can find a way to work with the board and to work with the leadership of the various quasi-public agencies and and come to consensus on something that can work."

Mike Hydeck: "Where's the legislation now? And have you heard from the governor's office on this?"

Mae Flexer: "The legislation just passed the Government Administration Elections Committee, it was a 16 to 0 vote, bipartisan and unanimous. It's heading to the Senate floor. And I have not heard from the Governor's office about this."

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