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Republicans’ election-year focus is on federal probe, Lamont

February 24, 2022 GMT
FILE - Connecticut House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, speaks during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, Candelora called for a special legislative commission to review alleged state contracting "wrongdoings" in light of a recent federal subpoena involving a former member of Gov. Ned Lamont's administration. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Connecticut House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, speaks during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, Candelora called for a special legislative commission to review alleged state contracting "wrongdoings" in light of a recent federal subpoena involving a former member of Gov. Ned Lamont's administration. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Connecticut House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, speaks during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, Candelora called for a special legislative commission to review alleged state contracting "wrongdoings" in light of a recent federal subpoena involving a former member of Gov. Ned Lamont's administration. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Connecticut House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, speaks during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, Candelora called for a special legislative commission to review alleged state contracting "wrongdoings" in light of a recent federal subpoena involving a former member of Gov. Ned Lamont's administration. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE - Connecticut House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, speaks during opening session at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Hartford, Conn. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, Candelora called for a special legislative commission to review alleged state contracting "wrongdoings" in light of a recent federal subpoena involving a former member of Gov. Ned Lamont's administration. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

The top Republican in the Connecticut House said Thursday he wants a legislative commission — and possibly a private investigator — to look into alleged state contracting “wrongdoings” by a former member of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.

Standing in front of signs with enlarged news headlines that included the words “corruption” and “scandal” at a state Capitol news conference, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora’s request was the latest salvo in recent weeks from legislative Republicans, as well as Lamont’s likely GOP challenger in November, businessman Bob Stefanowski, and the Republican Governors Association. They’ve publicly questioned the governor’s leadership in responding to a federal grand jury subpoena regarding hundreds of millions of dollars in state spending, and whether it’s a sign of larger problems for the administration and state Democrats.

“There is an erosion of good government in this building,” Candelora said. “People should be concerned with that.”

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It’s doubtful a bipartisan commission, similar to the impeachment panel created in 2004 to investigate then-Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican, will be formed anytime soon. A federal grand jury appears to be still meeting and top Democratic leaders reiterated Thursday that existing legislative committees should hold hearings to determine if changes need to be made to the state’s school construction funding process.

“This was asked about two weeks ago and the answer was, we’re going to do it. There’s going to be public hearings. I agree,” said House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “But the job of the Legislature right now is to be looking into how do we avoid this in the future. We should be looking prospectively. The FBI is looking at retroactively what happened.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said in a statement that he agreed it’s the “proper role” of the General Assembly to review state policy and operations. But he called it “naïve and/or deliberately misleading” to believe the General Assembly “can launch a criminal investigation parallel to and superior to the ongoing federal investigation.”

State officials recently received a federal grand jury subpoena seeking electronic communications dating to Jan. 1, 2018, involving the former official, Konstantinos Diamantis, and the “planning, bidding, awarding and implementation” of school construction projects, upgrades at the state pier in New London, and hazardous material abatement projects. Since then, there have been various news reports about municipalities feeling pressured to hire certain contractors.

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Norm Pattis, defense attorney for Diamantis, called the House GOP’s proposed legislative investigation “as stupid an idea as can be conceived by elected officials in any state in the United States and maybe in the Third World,” in an interview with Fox61 TV. He reiterated Diamantis “broke no law” and that “many of the claims of undo influence and so forth are people who simply don’t understand the state bidding process.”

Candelora, of North Branford, said he and other Republicans won’t relent on demands for what they contend is a need for better financial transparency.

“We are here to say that Republicans are going to be asking Democrats throughout the entire committee process and session, many, many times: ‘Do you stand with corruption or do you stand with good government?’” said Candelora, noting that Democrats recently pledged to ask Republicans whether they support former President Donald Trump and his false claims the 2020 election was rigged.

While Candelora acknowledged there’s a “political overtone” to the GOP’s request for the special legislative commission, he defended his proposal to have four Republicans and four Democrats from the General Assembly “come together and form a committee that would have the power to investigate these wrongdoings.” In particular, he said lawmakers need to learn more from state agencies about the process of issuing a memorandum of understanding to “circumvent good government and the transparency of process.” Candelora said such a memorandum of understanding was used by Lamont to transfer authority over school construction grants from the Department of Administrative Services to the Office of Policy and Management, the governor’s budget office.

In a written statement, Max Reiss, Lamont’s spokesperson, said the administration would “welcome public hearings into the school construction program by the General Assembly’s committees of cognizance.” Also, he said the administration has and will continue to cooperate with federal authorities.

Reiss noted how Lamont “took swift action to remove Mr. Diamantis when ethical improprieties were brought to his attention” and how he ordered an outside investigation into questions about the hiring of one of Diamantis’ daughters by former Chief State’s Attorney Rich Colangelo.

“Governor Lamont has zero tolerance for the types of actions which have been exposed,” Reiss said.

Top state office-holders, currently all Democrats, and members of the Democratic controlled General Assembly are up for election in November. It remains uncertain whether fallout from the federal probe will negatively impact Lamont politically in a state where unaffiliated and Democratic voters both outnumber Republicans and where the governor has received mostly praise for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.