CHRIS POWELL: State budget office scandal isn't racism but corruption

Published on Friday, 18 February 2022 21:19

Nobody needs the federal investigation that is under way to grasp the basics of the racket that was being run from the state budget office – the Office of Policy and Management – by its deputy secretary, Konstantinos Diamantis, who a few weeks ago was fired by Governor Lamont, not by OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw.

Diamantis, who was in charge of state government's financing of municipal school construction projects, steered no-bid contracts to a construction management company that employed his daughter, Anastasia. Diamantis also facilitated Anastasia's hiring as the $99,000-a-year assistant to the chief state's attorney, Richard Colangelo Jr., while Colangelo was seeking the budget office's approval for raises for prosecutors.

Diamantis, a former Democratic state representative from Bristol, was also supervising for OPM the redevelopment of the State Pier in New London, a project that has been botched. It is a year behind schedule with costs of $235 million, 2½ times the original estimate, $93 million. Nothing corrupt has been exposed there yet, but maybe Anastasia will turn up again, this time as the vice president of a dredging contractor. At least that $142 million cost overrun provides lots more room for political patronage and payoffs.

In his address to the General Assembly on Feb. 9 the governor felt compelled to acknowledge the smelly transactions in his budget office.

“I have zero tolerance for any ethical malfeasance," the governor said. "We hold ourselves to the highest standards. If you see something, say something, and if you don't get the response you deserve, give me a call.”

But who wants to cross the agency that has so much discretion over state and municipal spending, discretion Diamantis abused to benefit his daughter? The governor himself should be doing the calling – starting with budget director McCaw.

Did McCaw know what her deputy was doing, fixing the job for his daughter in the chief state's attorney's office and steering the school construction contracts to her other employer? Was McCaw demanding explanations for the grotesque overruns in the pier project? What other business in the budget office might the FBI want to look at?

At a briefing about the governor's budget Feb. 9, McCaw said she has a "close working relationship" with Lamont, but she signified resentment of his top aides." As a Black woman and the first woman of color to hold the position of OPM secretary," McCaw said, "it is not easy to work professionally at this high level in a field that has been dominated by white males."

Since McCaw omitted specifics, her insinuation of racism may be construed as a cheap distraction and evasion of responsibility for the corruption that had exploded right under her nose, a big embarrassment to the governor in an election year. But she well may figure that because she's Black, as a political matter she can't be fired.

Meanwhile the governor said he hoped McCaw would remain budget director. This sounded more like nervousness than a proclamation of confidence. With the FBI rummaging through budget office records and interviewing the neighborhood, the Republican opposition also may hope that McCaw doesn't leave too soon but sticks around for indictments.

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DON'T GUSH OVER HOSPITALS: Though Prospect Medical Holdings recently saved the hospitals in Waterbury, Manchester, and Vernon from bankruptcy, people served by those hospitals probably will be glad that Yale New Haven Health proposes to acquire them. Prospect is a financial company, not a medical one, while Yale New Haven operates four other hospitals in the state and has a national reputation in medicine.

But the consolidation of hospitals and medical practices in Connecticut is proceeding so fast that economies of scale are almost sure to be offset by the loss of competition, resulting in higher prices. With the acquisitions Yale New Haven Health would control 36% of hospital revenue in the state. And since Prospect Medical Holdings is a for-profit operation and Yale New Haven Health is a nonprofit, the three hospitals being acquired would be erased from municipal tax rolls, costing the municipalities millions of dollars.

A critical review, not the usual gushing approval, is needed here from the governor, General Assembly, attorney general, and hospital regulators.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Friday, 18 February 2022 21:19. Updated: Friday, 18 February 2022 21:22.