An unsigned memo provoked a vigorous defense from Kosta Diamantis
Enlisting the help of contractors and his former boss at the state Department of Administrative Services, Konstantinos Diamantis mounted a fast and furious defense in the summer of 2020 against an accusatory memo produced by the building trade unions ahead of a meeting with Gov. Ned Lamont.
The unsigned memo accused Diamantis of using “fear mongering and threats” to engineer an emergency declaration that fast-tracked the replacement of a structurally unsound school in Tolland without competitive bidding — then provided the town with bid specs, a contract and a suggested construction manager.
None of those things were true, Diamantis replied in a four-page rebuttal that, along with a letter solicited from the main contractor on the Tolland project, were delivered to the governor’s office. What happened next, however, is unclear.
Lamont said Friday he never saw the initial building trades memo or the letters responding to it.
Today, the question of who saw the building trades memo or took its claims seriously is relevant to the broader question of when the administration had reason to examine the school construction grants office, which Diamantis directed until his dismissal on Oct. 28, 2021.
But at the time, the conflict between Diamantis and the union was a dispute confined to the small world of construction in Connecticut. A subtext to the union’s complaints was the suspicion that Diamantis, then the state official in charge of school construction grants, was disparaging the use of project-labor agreements that guarantee, among other things, the use of union labor.
Union officials have declined to comment on the accusations laid out in the memo. In addition to Diamantis, they have been forcefully rebutted by Melody Currey, the former DAS commissioner who made the emergency declaration for Tolland, and the contractor that rebuilt the school, D’Amato Construction.
“I was very shocked by the July letter, which is probably why my response was so vehement,” Diamantis said.
Seventeen months later, Diamantis still is offering a vociferous defense against allegations that he steered contracts, only now the stakes are higher. He’s been fired, the FBI is investigating, audits are under way, and Diamantis complains the media is confusing details and making him a villain.
Diamantis, 65, is a lawyer and former Democratic state representative from Bristol, a struggling industrial city with a history of bare-knuckles politics. He is a weightlifter of broad shoulders and average height, often brusque by his own account, arrogant in the view of others.
He is the father of five daughters, one a central figure in the troubles that have reached far beyond his family: Anastasia Diamantis.
It is a tangle that has contributed to the forced retirement of Chief State’s Attorney Richard Colangelo Jr. over his hiring of Anastasia Diamantis and the decision by Melissa McCaw to resign last week as the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. She is leaving a job overseeing Connecticut’s budget for a job as finance director in East Hartford.
Diamantis was fired in October over questions pertaining to Colangelo’s hiring of Anastasia Diamantis to a $99,000-a-year executive assistant job while the chief prosecutor was lobbying Diamantis and McCaw for their help in securing raises for top prosecutors. The FBI investigation became public on Feb. 2.
Diamantis was McCaw’s deputy secretary at OPM as well as the director of OSCGR, the Office of School Construction Grants & Review. When McCaw named him to the politically appointed job of OPM deputy in 2019, she consented to one of his conditions: that he retain his civil-service school construction job and move it from DAS to OPM.
Lamont held a news conference Friday to announce McCaw’s departure and address efforts underway to examine how the OSCGR was run under Diamantis and reforms already made to increase oversight. The office was returned to DAS after Diamantis was fired.
‘Never saw it’
The controversy over the school construction program binds Diamantis to the governor who authorized his firing.
Diamantis is defending himself against allegations of dishonesty; Lamont, engaged in a reelection campaign, against the suggestion his administration was negligent in overseeing school construction grants, an important yet relatively obscure function of state government.
The governor said he never saw the trades’ accusatory memo or the point-by-point rebuttal produced by Diamantis on July 22, 2020, after Lamont met with the unions for a clear-the-air talk about a variety of construction issues. Lamont and union officials say the complaints about Diamantis didn’t come up during that meeting.
Lamont is resolute on the question of the memo produced under the letterhead of the Connecticut State Building Trades Council, an association of construction unions that endorsed his reelection in December.
“Never saw it. Never came up. Never distributed. Didn’t see it.” Lamont said.
The same was true of the letter from Diamantis, who also was the deputy secretary of the Office of Policy and Management under McCaw, which brought the school construction function from DAS to OPM.
“No, sir,” Lamont said, when asked Friday if he saw the rebuttal. “That’s why I have an OPM secretary.”
Diamantis does not know who in the administration saw the building trades memo or his rebuttal, other than the gubernatorial adviser who he says accepted it: Jonathan Harris, who had accompanied Lamont to the meeting.
Harris, who left the administration in December, was vacationing out of the country last week and could not be reached. But Diamantis said he assumed his rebuttal was persuasive; no one in the administration followed up with him.
“I can’t tell you what happened with my documents that I gave. All I know is nothing negative happened,” he said.
Months earlier, a warning
Two months before the July 2020 meeting, a demolition contractor, Stamford Wrecking Company, complained to McCaw and Josh Geballe, then the commissioner of DAS, that OPM had interfered with competitive bidding on hazardous materials abatement on school projects in Groton.
The complaint centered on whether municipalities could hire from a state emergency bidder list of four companies under a state contract that set some parameters on price, though the final cost was up to bidding or negotiations by the towns. Stamford Wrecking was not among them.
Diamantis said the list, as well as an expert in his office, helped municipalities guard against the cost overruns common to hazardous abatement.
“We were not interfering with contracts at all,” Diamantis said. “All that was happening was letting the towns know that you can use state contracts for hazmat abatement.”
Stamford Wrecking’s complaint initiated a nearly year-long review by lawyers at OPM and DAS over the propriety of using the list, which had been compiled by the procurement office at DAS, not the school construction unit overseen by Diamantis.
It had only four contractors, and Diamantis said he had argued that it should be broadened.
Noel Petra, the deputy commissioner of DAS assigned to review school construction practices, said the list was intended for small, emergency jobs, but DAS slowly had allowed wider use over over the years.
Separate from the hazardous abatement issue are the broader complaints from municipal officials since Diamantis’ dismissal. They say that he urged them to hire certain contractors, including one that employed his daughter Anastasia Diamantis, Construction Advocacy Professionals.
Diamantis declines to respond to those allegations or talk about how his daughter came to moonlight for a construction management company while she also was a state employee. For now, he said, his focus is on rebutting claims that he ever undermined competitive bidding.
The only overall school construction project exempted from competitive bidding on his watch was the reconstruction of Birch Grove Elementary in Tolland, which was abruptly closed after the failure of its foundation due to contamination by pyrrhotite, a mineral that expands and causes uncontrollable cracking when present in concrete.
Currey said the emergency declaration was made by her in consultation with DAS legal staff. Its initial impact was to allow Tolland to skip bidding and hire D’Amato Construction of Bristol to immediately begin work constructing a temporary modular school complex.
The union memo suggested that D’Amato was an odd choice since it had no history of school construction. Edward D’Amato Jr., the vice president of the multi-generational family business, immediately sent a letter to Lamont saying the union had misrepresented his company’s 60-year history and how it was hired in Tolland.
His son, Tony D’Amato, the operations manager and third generation of D’Amatos in the business, said the union claim was insulting.
“I just personally take a little bit of offense in the fact that they paint school construction as a specialty,” he said. “There’s nothing specialized about it. We’re a builder. We’ve built every different type of building from the ground up. The school is no different than that.”
D’Amato Construction was hired by Tolland for demolition, then kept to install the modular units and, ultimately, the new school in record time.
“I was happy to be part of it,” D’Amato sad. “For the folks who work here, it was the project of a lifetime.”
D’Amato is currently building a school in Bristol, a joint project with Downes Construction of New Britain that was awarded by competitive bidding. The use of the emergency bid list for demolition was an issue, due to what Diamantis insisted was a misunderstanding. The demolition work eventually went to bid.
D’Amato said his company has not been approached by the FBI. The federal subpoena demanded documents of D’Amato and a dozen other companies that did school construction or worked on the reconstruction of the State Pier in New London, a project supervised by Diamantis.
Diamantis was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, the same year as Currey, the commissioner who would hire him in 2015 during the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to oversee the school construction grants program at the Department of Administrative Services. Diamantis left the legislature after losing a Democratic primary in 2006.
By reimbursing a portion of the costs, the state plays an influential role in the construction and remodeling of local schools, offering guidance about standards and costs. Currey said she thought his predecessor overseeing school construction grants had been “arbitrary” in dealing with municipalities.
Diamantis had co-chaired an Appropriations subcommittee overseeing school construction grants, and he had been a town attorney, Currey said.
“I wanted somebody who followed the rules and somebody who would adhere to the proper procedures and protocols, and as an attorney would know what those proper protocols and procedures were in relation to all aspects of doing construction,” Currey said.
And that somebody, she said, was Kosta Diamantis.