Bridgeport demolition job went to the highest bidder of $3.3 million

Work is well underway on the demolition of three buildings on a former part of the University of Bridgeport campus for the new Bassick High School in the city’s south end, after much back and forth over location and funding.

The demolition and reduction of hazardous materials, by all accounts, went more smoothly. AAIS Corp., a West Haven company on the state’s pre-approved list of demonstration and hazardous materials contractors, won the tender for $8,769,000 on Sept. 30, according to city records. .

AAIS has already demolished much of the former 8-story dormitory, Bodine Hall. But that wasn’t the lowest bidder. Bestech Inc. of Ellington offered $5,445,000 for the same work.

That’s a difference of $3.3 million, making AAIS’s bid 61% higher than its competitor’s bid.

Bestech is on the same controversial state list of four demolition and hazardous materials contractors as AAIS, which was established in 2016. Both companies are on the list of likely recipients of a subpoena in an investigation in progress of the United States Department of Justice on the construction of schools in Connecticut.

No one can say that Bestech was not a qualified bidder. The purpose of the listing is to give the state and cities and towns a choice of fully vetted, ready-to-roll contractors with predefined unit prices – X amount per square foot to remove asbestos tile and Y amount per tonne for cement, for example.

So why would Bridgeport choose the highest bidder? Not only higher, but unprecedented in a competitive industry where differences of 5% are considered significant.

Bridgeport officials stood by their decision on Tuesday.

“The view is that AAIS would provide a better completed job even though its initial price is higher overall,” Michele Otero, construction project manager for the City of Bridgeport, wrote in the minutes of the special meeting. of September 30 of the city. school building committee.

The City’s message is that with current unit prices, the final price paid to AAIS may well fall below its bid and the price offered by Bestech may have required upward adjustments. Maybe so, but $3.3 million on top of a $5.4 million offer? It seems unlikely.

The 60% haircut

Bestech demolished similarly sized buildings in Connecticut, records show. It’s hard to see a reason for the offers if you allow a 60% discount.

That may be a question federal investigators are asking school construction contractors under former school construction program director Konstantinos “Kosta” Diamantis, an investigation that was made public on February 2.

AAIS was by far the biggest recipient of work on public buildings between 2017 and the end of 2021 among the companies on this pre-approved list, I reported on Sunday – with $20.2 million of the $28.8 million dollars in work orders. Bestech was No. 2, at $8.2 million, and the other two companies raked in less than $400,000 combined.

These numbers do not include work done by towns and villages for school and municipal projects such as the Bassick High School project. Towns and villages have the right to draw on the same unit prices as the State from these contractors for the work they need.

Diamantis, the former director of the state Office of School Building Grants and Review, told me on Tuesday that he had nothing to do with the AAIS selection and that he neither recommended the company nor endorsed the city’s use of a higher bid. In fact, he said the office he heads did not oversee the use of the pre-approved list by the municipal and school systems at all.

“The Office of School Building and Grants has no role in this process, nor does it have an opinion,” Diamantis said in an email, adding in conversation, “There is a great presumption that I know more than I do.”

Diamantis retired from his job as head of the school’s construction office on October 28, rather than accept a suspension ordered by Governor Ned Lamont – who fired him from his related post and appointed secretary deputy of the State Bureau of Policy and Management amid allegations of nepotism.

The city of Bridgeport told me in a written statement Tuesday that neither Diamantis nor anyone else at the state level had expressed a preference for either demolition contractor, and the city did not didn’t need to seek state approval to choose a much higher bidder.

“We haven’t discussed this with the state before. We informed them after the fact that the School Construction Committee had decided to award the contract to AAIS,” the email said.

State taxpayers on the hook

Part of the confusion over which state agencies oversee local schools’ use of the pre-approved list stems from the fact that Michael Sanders, who managed haz-mat and demolition work for the state during many years, has reported to Diamantis in recent years. In at least one case, in Bristol in 2020, Sanders suggested the city hire a specific contractor for school work – Bestech, in this case – according to a letter from the Bristol city attorney.

Bestech won the position despite an overbid of $200,000, but the school system later reversed that decision and went with the lowest bidder.

That suggestion to Bristol was a mistake, Diamantis, a former Bristol state official, said on Tuesday. He said it was done by Sanders without understanding that the bidding process in this case required the city to use the lowest qualified bidder because it involved companies not on the state’s list. .

Sanders died at age 53 on December 17 in Old Lyme; his death was ruled an overdose of cocaine, fentanyl, and another substance by the state medical examiner. “I certainly can’t say what he said and who he said it to,” Diamantis added on Tuesday.

Thus, no evidence of direction has emerged in the Bridgeport demolition work, but it still raises questions. State ratepayers are liable for $2.3 million of the $3.3 million bid difference, based on the state’s 68.93% refund rate on the Bassick project.

A spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Administrative Services, where the school’s construction office is located, said the agency had no immediate comment on the proposed Bassick High School demolition. Neither Bestech nor AAIS returned messages seeking comment on Tuesday.

“Less than what was requested”

Bridgeport, in its written statement, said Bestech sent an email “asking why they didn’t get the job.” The city was unable to immediately produce this email when I requested it late Tuesday afternoon.

Diamantis said his office hadn’t received any emails, letters or calls from Bestech or any other company about the selection of bids — neither should he have, he said, since that was not the role of his office.

But in the Minutes of Approval and in their emails to me, the city explained their reasoning. It was based on the estimated quantities of materials to be removed.

“The quantities indicated in the work plan provided by Bestech were lower than what was required in the documents,” the city’s statement said. As for AAIS, in the minutes of the award meeting, Otero wrote, “If they did not remove the quantities stated in their proposal, the City would receive a credit in return. Likewise, if Bestech exceeded the quantities, it would seek a change order from the city. »

A former co-owner of AAIS, Brian T. Bannon, pleaded guilty to a fraud charge in 2001, related to an accused bribe of $81,000 – plus free work at a local official’s home – for get contracts in the first administration of Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim. Ganim then served seven years in prison under the bribery scheme and was re-elected after his release.

AAIS was banned from certain state contracts in 2003, a sanction that has been upheld by state courts. In recent years, the company was sold to an out-of-state company, but it still operates as AAIS. It is unclear if Bannon is still affiliated with the company; his name is not mentioned in the AAIS telephone directory.

When I asked city officials if they knew about this story, they answered with three question marks. They also said that AAIS’s status as a union company was irrelevant to the candidacy decision. This is done under a draft labor agreement, which would ensure union work even in an open-shop company like Bestech.

Buried in all of this is why the City of Bridgeport only invited the four companies on the pre-approved list to bid. What about other major wrecking companies such as Stamford Wrecking, which filed a series of complaints with state officials in 2020 over what it and its attorney called misuse from the list.

The answer given is that cities like Bridgeport – and there were many more – have tapped into the list as a way to make their projects simpler and smoother.

“Reducing hazardous materials delays projects the most,” Diamantis said in his email Tuesday, explaining the value of the listing. “The world of hazardous materials is incoherent and needs attention.”

Speaking of Bridgeport, he said, “I know the city was eager to move the project forward, was behind schedule and costs were increasing.”

Good then. Costs were rising, so they paid a high premium to a bidder. Obviously, we have more questions than answers here.

dhaar@hearstmediact.com

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