AP NEWS

Companies in Bridgeport FBI probe not ‘transparent’ on city website

February 23, 2019

BRIDGEPORT — Over the last four years the city made nearly $13.6 million worth of deals with three contractors that are now part of an FBI criminal probe.

That multimillion dollar figure would surprise anyone who visited Bridgeport’s Open Budget website for information on what these or other companies are earning while doing business with the city.

That’s because those expenses can’t be found on Open Budget.

G. Pic & Sons Construction was awarded more than $9.1 million worth of work, VAZ Quality Works received over $4.3 million in contracts, and Seaview Equipment got about $89,400, according to data put together by Hearst Connecticut Media.

Though touted as a major step forward for transparency when the Open Budget online “portal” was launched in 2016 by Mayor Joe Ganim, the bulk of the G. Pic, VAZ and Seaview contracts are not there.

The FBI in early February subpoenaed all documents and communications involving those companies and City Hall dating back to Jan. 1, 2015. None of the contractors has been accused of wrongdoing.

Instead, the section of Open Budget — Open Checkbook — that details payments only shows that G. Pic earned a total of $9,180 from two contracts in 2016 and 2017, that VAZ earned $32,405 since late 2015, and that Seaview was paid $1,602.04.

Absent, for example, is all the money G. Pic made doing repairs on portions of Bridgeport’s 450 miles of public and private sidewalk. In 2017 the Ganim administration launched a $3 million initiative to split the cost of private sidewalk repairs with willing homeowners, and G. Pic was awarded the contract.

Open Checkbook does not provide details on the project that earned VAZ the bulk of its revenues — construction of a $3 million plus new garage for the public facilities department that the City Council has been reviewing due to a spike in paving costs.

An anonymous letter from last fall accusing public facilities’ of awarding too many no-bid contracts and of illicit scrap metal sales helped trigger the ongoing FBI probe.

That letter writer alleged the public facilities department gave no-bid work to VAZ and to G. Pic and bought unnecessary equipment from Seaview.

Transparency: local, state

Bridgeport’s Open Budget website piggybacked off of a similar initiative launched by state Comptroller Kevin Lembo called Open Connecticut.

And in many ways Bridgeport’s effort is a big improvement in access for taxpayers or any other members of the public seeking a user friendly way to delve into operating budgets of hundreds of pages.

Ganim in 2016 said the local initiative had “thrown open the doors to city government.”

But not completely.

Rowena White, Ganim’s director of communications on Thursday confirmed that data for G. Pic, VAZ, and Seaview is unavailable because “the Open Checkbook does not include capital projects.”

Capital projects are pricey, mostly infrastructure related items — road paving, building construction — that the city essentially puts on its credit card. White said Open Checkbook provides information on operating budget expenses.

“They’re two totally different funds you’re talking about,” she said.

So another Bridgeport contract that has drawn recent attention — the nearly $544,000 replacement of 100 plus decorative light fixtures in the Black Rock neighborhood — also does not show up on Bridgeport’s website.

In contrast, payments for state capital projects can be researched on Open Connecticut.

Tara Downes, a spokesperson for Lembo, said while Open Connecticut has some limitations — capital projects are not generally found in the Open Budget section — “the Open Checkbook feature does include payments made related to capital projects.”

For example, President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort’s family owns a Connecticut-based construction company. Manafort Brothers Inc., according to Open Connecticut, made $35.79 million from state contracts last year.

The Ganim administration as of Friday had offered no further details about why Bridgeport’s capital expenses could not likewise be detailed on Open Bridgeport.

“There could be a legitimate reason why they have not incorporated payments related to capital projects,” Downes suggested. “Perhaps those are made through a different accounts payable system in Bridgeport that would require an add-on to the Open Bridgeport site. However, we have no knowledge as to whether that is, in fact, the reason or not.”

John Marshall Lee is a city activist known for his focus on and efforts to research municipal finances. Lee a few years ago had praised Open Bridgeport.

“The door was beginning to open,” Lee said Friday, adding the shortcomings involving Open Checkbook should be fixed. “Any time the city writes a check, everybody ought to know about it.”