Lawmakers to question Lamont administration officials about school construction scandal

A trio of state legislative committees will begin an inquiry next week into Connecticut’s school construction program that is at the center of a federal investigation into potential wrongdoing by the program’s former director, Konstantinos Diamantis.

The inquiry will begin Monday with testimony from two Lamont administration officials who were put in charge of the Office of School Construction Grants and Review following Diamantis’ departure last October amid allegations of misconduct.

Those officials, school construction director Noel Petra and his boss, Department of Administration Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman, will speak to lawmakers about initial reforms that have been implemented to improve oversight of the school construction program, as well as audits of the hundred of millions of dollars in grants that were distributed under Diamantis’ six-year tenure.

That funding has been subject to scrutiny due to the federal probe and allegations that Diamantis used his authority to steer construction contracts to a select few companies.

“Obviously there’s a lot of interest in figuring out what’s going on with school construction and what lessons have been learned from the alleged impropriety of [Diamantis],” said state Rep. Sean Scanlon, D- Guilford, who is organizing the hearing as co-chair of the Finance Committee.

In addition to the Finance Committee, Scanlon said members of the Education and Government Administration and Elections committees will participate in the hearing.

Last week, Republicans called for a formation of a new bi-partisan panel to oversee an investigation of Diamantis and the school construction program, a proposal that was quickly brushed aside by the legislature’s Democratic leadership, who said that the committees they control are well-equipped to handle any oversight of Gov. Ned Lamont and his administration.

House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R- North Branford, said this week that lawmakers “need to look well beyond school construction,” while casting the existing plans for a hearing as partisan in nature.

“It’s not a good faith effort in understanding this process and how we got here,” Candelora said. “We need to do a thorough investigation. I’m not sure either of these committees is in a position to do this while still going through the legislative process.”

Democrats, however, have no plans to double up on the efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s Office to uncover potential criminal wrongdoing involving Diamantis, Scanlon said.

Instead, he said the inquiry will focus on policy decisions that contributed to the allegations of pressure from Diamantis and a lack of oversight over the school construction office, as well as any additional changes that may need to be made to restore the integrity of the program.

“It’s important to separate the past from the future looking forward,” Scanlon said, adding “I’m not an investigator, I’m not a police officer, I’m a legislator.”

Diamantis has denied any wrongdoing, and said that the Lamont administration has falsely depicted him as having run amok after the school construction office was moved to the Office of Policy and Management in 2018.

“For someone to judge what is a discrepancy to someone who never knew the program and learned it in five minutes is a disservice to the program, is a disservice to the people who worked at that program and cared about the communities we worked with,” Diamantis told Hearst Connecticut last week.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Administrative Services did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Gov. Ned Lamont has previously promised cooperation with legislative inquiries into the school construction office, telling reporters “If they want a public hearing, they can have a public hearing, sure.”

Diamantis was originally hired to lead the school construction program in 2015 as a member of former Gov. Dannel Malloy’s administration. When Lamont became governor three years later, Diamantis was hired as deputy secretary of the OPM and allowed to transfer his school construction work to that office.

Lamont later reversed that decision, sending the school construction office back to the Department of Administrative Service after Diamantis’ retired amid an investigation into allegations of misconduct.

OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw, who served as Diamantis’ boss at the budget office, announced last week that she would depart state government to take the job of finance director in East Hartford, after facing increasing scrutiny of her oversight of Diamantis' work.

Scanlon said there will not be a time limit Monday to questions from lawmakers, who will particpate in the hearing virtually. He said further hearings are possible as lawmakers seek to learn more about Diamantis and the school construction office.