25 Investigates: $1.8+ million contracts Mass. gave to Illinois consultant prompts state probe

Dept. of Early Education and Care continued paying consultant during COVID shutdown when most daycares were closed

After 25 Investigates reported that Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy was resigning her post amid a probe by the Inspector General’s office, our team exclusively obtained an official document that shed light on the investigation.

The document, provided by a source, indicated the IG had questions about contracts EEC awarded to an Illinois-based consultant who, as 25 Investigates uncovered, has a connection to the commissioner.

Our team pored over state databases and confirmed EEC, the agency that regulates Massachusetts daycares, shelled out nearly $2 million dollars in taxpayer money to consulting firm Aim and Arrow over a two year period that included the pandemic shutdown.

An online review of public records in both Massachusetts and Illinois revealed Commissioner Aigner-Treworgy worked in Illinois education agencies that also contracted with Aim and Arrow founder, M. Elizabeth Cole, before coming to Massachusetts in 2019.

According to its website, Aim and Arrow “builds the capabilities of leaders, teams, organizations, and systems to achieve greater impact.”

We asked former Inspector General and current Research Director at Pioneer Institute Greg Sullivan to review our findings and the four page we obtained, which shows the IG investigation began nearly a year ago and focuses on communications between Aigner-Treworgy and two other state employees and Aim and Arrow executives.

“I can tell from the from the document request that they are looking for all the documents having to do with their procurement,” said Sullivan, who spent 20 years in the state Office of the Inspector General, leading financial bid fraud investigations.

He says it appears the IG is examining the bidding process for the contracts Aim and Arrow got, specifically how it was awarded and ultimately what work the consulting firm provided to the state.

Investigative reporter and anchor Kerry Kavanaugh examined state data bases and found between November 2019 and November 2021, EEC paid Aim and Arrow $1,804,053 for “Consultant services for departments.” The bulk of the payments - $981,650 – occurred in 2020 when most state agencies and daycares were closed for the pandemic. The first payment to Aim and Arrow was in the amount $329,300.80 in November 2019, state records show. That payment, however, shows up in Fiscal Year 2020 records.

“This is not a small amount of money. This would represent a very substantial bid fraud case, " said Sullivan.

According to records on the state’s Operational Services Division website, Aim and Arrow is on a list of Massachusetts approved vendors.

But, Sullivan says, that does not mean an agency can automatically hand over a contract. Bid and proposal rules still apply.

“They can’t just pick a vendor. They can’t say I’d like that person to give the award, there has to be a competition,” he said, adding that contracts should be awarded based on “best value.”

We contacted the former commissioner for comment about the IG’s investigation. Through her attorney, M. Patrick Moore Jr., of the Boston-based Hemenway & Barnes law firm, she said: “It was an honor to serve as Commissioner of Early Education and Care, and I’m so proud of the accomplishments of the Department even through the global pandemic. When I first took over as commissioner, as part of the agency’s planning process, we partnered with an outside consultant to review the strategic goals and operations for EEC, and I am confident the IG will find this consultant was hired in a transparent procurement process.”

25 Investigates also reached out to Aim and Arrow for comment about its contracts and work for EEC. In an email its founder and managing partner, Elizabeth “Eli” Cole, said:

“Aim and Arrow is a national consulting firm that supports the government and nonprofit sectors to achieve lasting change at scale. The firm participated in an open procurement process and was honored to be chosen to support the Department of Early Education and Care’s strategic planning. Aim and Arrow has been proud to work with EEC’s extraordinary staff and extensive community of stakeholders in their efforts to increase access to affordable care for the children and families of Massachusetts.”

“All it takes is for somebody with a friend with a business associate to skip a couple of steps and give an advantage to a company and suddenly they’re multimillionaires,” said Sullivan about the reason for the state’s strict procurement rules.

Sullivan adds that the fact that Aim and Arrow continued getting paid during the COVID shutdown raises some questions. He says proper oversight of contracts was likely not happening during that period, when the state’s attention was largely focused on fighting the pandemic. For that reason, he believes the IG is more closely examining state contracts.

“Taxpayers should really care about this. This is money that the taxpayers of Massachusetts have paid,” Sullivan said.

We contacted the IG’s office about the EEC investigation, but a spokesman declined to comment.

We also reached out to EEC and its board chair. They referred us to comments made by Governor Charlie Baker to 25 Investigates’ Kerry Kavanaugh the day after Aigner-Treworgy announced her resignation. Baker defended her and denied any link between her resignation and the IG’s investigation.

“Commissioner Sam did a great job working through a very difficult period of time, especially for the early care and education community here in the Commonwealth throughout the course of the pandemic. I don’t know that much about the Inspector General. But the bottom line is, you know, when they ask for stuff, we give it to them. But it has nothing… one has nothing to do with the other,” Baker said at the time.

Aigner-Treworgy formally stepped down on March 8th during an EEC board meeting, where board members praised her leadership during the pandemic. PLEASE

At that meeting, Amy Kershaw, currently the commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, was named acting commissioner of EEC, effective March 28. Until then, Education Secretary James Peyser will serve as EEC’s acting commissioner.

Download the FREE Boston 25 News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Boston 25 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch Boston 25 News NOW