The Connecticut watchdog board that investigates complaints regarding state contracts has admitted that it has limited jurisdiction over the University of Connecticut. UConn told the watchdog board that it is not a state-contracting agency, as that term is defined in state legislation, and thus, the board has limited jurisdiction over complaints against UConn. As reported in the Hartford Courant, Julia Lentini Marquis, the board’s chief procurement officer, said the Office of the Attorney General agreed with UConn’s view on the matter. Regardless of what the current law may be, contracts awarded by a state university should be subject to the same oversight as those awarded by other agencies, and the watchdog board should have jurisdiction over UConn.
This dispute came about when a janitorial company, GCA Services Group, complained that university administrators reversed a contract awarded to them by a selection committee and granted it to another company. The board referred the complaint for state prosecutors to investigate. UConn’s Office of General Counsel argued that this was a matter for their investigation and that the state board had no jurisdiction. This argument is troubling. The university is telling the state that it is to be its own watchdog in ensuring state contracts are awarded properly. Granting this amount of discretion to state universities without subjecting them to state oversight is unwise and damages public accountability.
This watchdog board was formed in 2007 in response to the corrupt dealings of former Gov. John Rowland in awarding state contracts. The board insures that state agencies award contracts properly by allowing companies that lost out on a bid to complain. If the board feels that there is reason to believe the contract was awarded improperly, it may refer the matter to state prosecutors to investigate. State contracts are very valuable commodities for businesses, oftentimes involving millions of dollars. Thus, the danger of bribery and corruption among state officials in awarding these contracts is immense. It is important for the state to have the appropriate tools to prevent improper contracting between state employees and companies.
While UConn may be correct that it does not fall under the legal definition of state-contracting agency, there are few substantive explanations for why state universities should be held to a different standard than regular state agencies in granting contracts. While state universities are granted greater discretion in their administration than standard agencies because of the unique nature of universities, the threat of corruption in state contracts is the same. Legislation should ensure that public universities have the same oversight as regular state agencies. We do not trust these agencies to watch over themselves and we should not trust state universities to do so either.