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CT Commissioner Seeks Tougher Construction Contracts

Wed January 14, 2004 - Northeast Edition

HARTFORD (AP) Three months on the job, new public works (DPW) Commissioner James Fleming said he wants to impose tougher rules for state contracts than the legislature requires.

Fleming said his office plans to tighten not only regulations for selecting contractors on major projects valued more than $500,000, but also the smaller jobs, all state leases and facilities management contracts with private companies.

His office is examining the federal procurement regulations and considering adopting some of those standards as well.

These changes come in the wake of a federal corruption investigation involving a former member of Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration who admitted to steering business to certain contractors in return for cash and gold.

“We want to go beyond what the legislature wanted us to do,” Fleming said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Early in 2003 the legislature passed a far-reaching bill that established a new process for pre-qualifying contractors wanting to bid on major state projects, among other reforms. DPW is supposed to present lawmakers with an update next month on how the new changes to the bidding process are coming along.

Fleming said he hopes to finish the new, tougher rules for awarding contracts, as well as to write informal DPW procedures into formal state regulations, sometime this summer.

“A lot of [contract awarding] was done on a more subjective rather than objective basis,” Fleming said. “I think that’s where they got in trouble.

“When it’s in regulations,” he said, “it has force of law.”

Many of the projects under federal scrutiny, such as the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, were fast-tracked by the legislature because of emergencies. That allowed DPW to avoid certain time-consuming checks and balances.

Fleming, a former Republican state senator, took over the DPW in September 2003 after Rowland pressured former Commissioner Theodore Anson to resign. Anson admitted he had accepted architectural work for an addition to his home from a firm doing business with the state.

Rowland said he has given Fleming the ability to hire and fire, and to make changes at DPW wherever he sees fit.

During his first week on the job Fleming banned all gifts — including tickets, lunches at job sites and Christmas fruit baskets — from contractors, vendors and other firms doing business with DPW. He sent letters to all of the contractors.

Although state ethics laws allow state employees to accept gifts worth less than $10, the law also allows agencies to adopt stricter standards, Fleming said.

Fleming said he wants to avoid having his employees’ motivations called into question if they accept a gift from a contractor and someday sit on a selection team considering that particular contractor for a project.

“When you get into judgment calls, there’s less chance of somebody questioning you,” said Fleming, acknowledging he’s received mixed reactions from DPW employees about the strict gift ban — similar to the policy Fleming imposed as commissioner of the Department of Consumer Protection.

Fleming also has made some highly publicized staff changes.

In November, Fleming replaced Anson’s two deputy commissioners — P.J. Delahunty and Joseph Nesteriak — with two new hires, David O’Hearn and Jonathan Holmes. Both Delahunty and Nesteriak were reassigned to other state jobs, but Nesteriak recently notified Rowland’s office that he is leaving state service for another job.

Fleming also forced Richard F. Piotrowski, the DPW’s bureau chief of facilities, design and construction, to take a leave of absence pending an investigation into his possible conflict with one or more contractors.

Meanwhile, Fleming divided the agency into three functions: construction; leasing and facilities management; and a new legal unit. O’Hearn is overseeing construction and Holmes is coordinating the leasing division.

Anna Ficeto, who worked with Fleming at the Department of Consumer Protection, is heading the legal unit, examining all DPW contracts and making sure they comply with the regulations. This marks the first time such a unit has been in place at DPW.

“I will be aware of the statutes,” Fleming said. “No one will pull the wool over my eyes.”

To gain a better handle on how to fix the troubled agency, Fleming plans to attend a week-long seminar next month at Harvard University titled “Corruption Control and Organization Integrity.” Fleming said he hopes what he learns in Cambridge, MA, will help him change what he calls an “old fashioned” culture at DPW.

“I want to change the culture here that has been around here 30 years. I know that’s going to shake things up,” he said.

“I think that morale here is really bad. I think there are some unbelievably talented employees here that do their jobs,” Fleming added. “But I do think the agency is better than it was three months ago.”