Jon Lender: Tech-School Chief's Spending Sent Millions Through State Bidding Loophole

The suspension of state tech-school Superintendent Nivea Torres raises issues beyond whether she was wrong to pay $4.5 million in taxpayer funds to a marketing firm called The Pita Group that touted her as "inspirational ... thought-leader" and even wrote her tweets for her on Twitter.

For example, there's the question of why Torres and her Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS) were able to hire the Rocky Hill-based Pita in the first place without having to solicit competitive bids and then choose the lowest qualified bidder.

The answer: State contracting rules appear to be so loose that a single official or state agency can — with little scrutiny, and without comparing competitive proposals — pay millions to one supplier of public-relations or other non-critical services.

Public records show that The Pita Group is one of 42 firms on a 2014 state master contract-award list for "media, marketing and public relations services" — and those firms have been paid millions of taxpayer dollars in recent years under procurement rules that don't require bidding.

"State Agencies are encouraged to obtain three quotes when utilizing this contract award," says a directive of the state Department of Administrative Services (DAS).

Encouraged — not required?

Such loose language invites problems — and "it doesn't seem like it's in sync with the ... goal of having competitive bidding and making awards to the lowest qualified, responsible bidder ... to get the best deal for the taxpayers," said Robert Rinker, a member of the watchdog State Contracting Standards Board.

Are there consequences if an official doesn't obtain those competitive quotes that state agencies are "encouraged to obtain" — as the state Department of Education says Torres didn't do in 2014, when she first hired Pita?

Silence From DAS

DAS, the state's big contract-procurement agency, had no answer.

"I have to decline comment at this time" because of "our pending investigation," DAS staff counsel Jeffrey Beckham said this week.

DAS has taken the lead in the state's investigation of Torres' dealings with Pita at the request of Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of the state Department of Education.

Wentzell asked DAS last month to investigate "various areas of concern" that her department's internal auditors raised after examining the CTHSS's payments of as much as a $4.9 million to the firm since 2014 — during a time of crushing state budget deficits.

Torres and a subordinate CTHSS administrator who dealt with Pita, Athanasula Tanasi, were placed on paid leaves March 16 from their $169,000- and $123,000-a-year jobs, respectively, and were told not to communicate with state employees or vendors.

Meanwhile, federal agents have begun investigating as well, because of money that the U.S. Department of Education contributes to the state program.

And, in recent days, at Rinker's instigation, the state contracting standards board has launched its own investigation. It has sent Wentzell a letter requesting documents and asking questions, including: "What was the basis for single or sole sourcing of these contracts?"

Rinker said that he believes state agencies too often hire outside contractors for work that can be done in-house, and that he's skeptical of DAS-prepared "master lists" of vendors from which state agencies can pick without having to obtain competing bids.

Competitive Process?

Beckham has said in the past that getting on such a list involves a competitive process in which a vendor must provide detailed pricing information in various categories, and its qualifications to perform are evaluated.

But once a vendor gets onto that list, it appears that agencies can hire it virtually at will — and, although an official may be "encouraged" to get three quotes, that doesn't seem to have any teeth.

So, while Torres is under investigation for the unusually large payments to Pita, even if she were ultimately found to have violated state rules or regulations, it's unclear how someone can violate an encouragement to solicit three quotes.

Torres' attorney, Gregg Adler, has said that his client was carrying out a strategic plan by the CTHSS's governing board to promote the 17-school system, which is part of the state Department of Education. Pita had already done work for the education department in the past.

Beginning in 2014, Torres signed 13 agreements with Pita for a variety of public relations and marketing services, including "media buys" for advertisements to promote the tech-school system.

Among those were Pita's production of TV, radio and online material to boost not only the tech-school system, but also Torres as an individual. The firm was paid to produce "tweets" on Twitter, as well as other social-media material "to position Dr. Torres as an inspirational, next-generation education thought-leader," and to depict her "as a strategic innovator and change catalyst at the System's helm."

Pita, which bills itself as a "Hispanic-owned agency," even boosted Torres on its own Facebook page for an honorary community distinction on July 16, 2016 — saying: "Do you support innovative education programs and inspirational leaders? If so, cast a vote for one of our favorite education leaders in the state, Dr. Nivea L. Torres, Superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System, for the Latino de Oro Education Award!"

There was a link to a page where you could vote. She won the award.

Pita's lawyer, John Droney, said his client did nothing wrong — only what it was instructed to do — and will cooperate in any investigation.

Questions Urgency

Master contract-award lists are intended to eliminate burdensome and repetitive bureaucratic procedures that might impede state agencies' ability to purchase goods or services in a timely fashion.

Rinker said such lists are more appropriate when the commodity the state seeks is something you can see and touch — like computers, or tires for state police cars — rather than something less tangible, like efforts to build the image of the CTHSS and its superintendent via public-relations efforts.

A big consideration in whether to compile a "master list" of vendors is how urgent the need is for what they can provide, Rinker said.

For example, he said that if there's an immediate need for new police cruiser tires, the state police can use a master contract-award list to compare prices that tire vendors submitted to get on that list — and can rightly select a vendor without going through a whole new bidding process.

Various state agencies have hired public relations firms over the years, even though they have high-salaried public spokesmen or spokeswomen on the staff. What do they need outside PR firms for?

Here's one example: One of the 42 firms on the master list created in 2014, Cronin and Co. of Glastonbury, received $250,000 in 2015 from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to develop and conduct a radio and social media campaign to prevent discrimination against people with mental illness. It was called "Embrace, Don't Disgrace!" said DMHAS public information officer Diana Lejardi. She said DMHAS solicited four proposals from the master list before picking Cronin.

In the past, although not under the current master contract-award list, Cronin also has been paid more than $600,000 by the state Department of Public Health for its work on a continuing campaign to get people to quit smoking.

"Cronin did the media buys" for TV, radio, and social media and "digital billboards" — and it arranged appearances on local TV for people who were designated as the "biggest quitters," said Maura Downes, the health department's staff spokeswoman. She said the program was completely funded by the federal government — unlike the CTHSS's efforts with Pita.

Rinker said it's one thing to hire PR firms if it's deemed necessary, but, again, he said he prefers bidding contracts for things like this rather than selecting a vendor from a master list.

The trend still seems to be toward less bidding, not more.

Lawmakers last year passed a bill suggested by the State Auditors of Public Accounts to restrict situations in which the governor's budget office is allowed to approve "waivers" of state bidding. But Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed it.

"The flexibility to consider waivers is not only crucial to carrying out core governmental services, but may also make the most cost effective solution possible by avoiding the exercise of a competitive bid when the outcome may be a practical impossibility, wasting both time and resources," Malloy said in his written message explaining the veto, which wasn't overridden.

"Flexibility" — that's usually a big argument by government officials against the extra time and effort it takes to obtain bids and get the best deal for the taxpayers.

The question appears to be when, and whether, flexibility is so necessary that bidding should be avoided.

After all, how often does a state agency experience an urgent shortage of slick glibness that requires emergency tweet-writing by an outside public-relations vendor?

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.

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