HARTFORD — With three key officials missing from Monday’s Connecticut Port Authority hearing, legislators and the public were left with more questions than answers about a host of issues, including the quasi-public agency’s finances, wind power negotiations and personnel matters.
Co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, Roland Lemar of the House and Carlo Leone of the Senate, led the six-hour “informational forum” before an audience of about 80 people, including staffers from the state’s Auditors of Public Accounts, the Office of the Governor, and the Connecticut Port Authority.
Absent from the hearing were: Scott Bates, chair of the port authority board from 2016 until June 2019; Bates also serves as Deputy Secretary of the State; Bonnie Reemsnyder, former chair of the port authority’s finance committee, and chair of the port authority board from June 22 until July 24; Reemsnyder is also first selectwoman of Old Lyme; and Evan Matthews, Executive Director of the port authority. Matthews was placed on paid leave on July 12.
Lemar said his office had received an email Friday night requesting that the Transportation Committee subpoena Bates, Reemsnyder and Matthews.
“We may consider doing that in the future… depending on the information that we get today,” Lemar said.
Without Bates, Reemsnyder and Matthews, it was difficult to fully understand the issues at the port authority, said Rep. Laura Devlin (R-Fairfield).
“Those were the leaders. Those were the decision makers. So to really understand what it is that we’re here to talk about is a great disappointment that for some reason none of them are available or have been able to join us today, but despite that we look forward to what information we can glean, and based on that we anticipate we may have further discussion,” she said.
In lieu of appearing before the committee, Reemsnyder submitted a statement that was included in a packet given to members of the Transportation Committee. Her statement was not read into the record, or shared directly with the press. The packet also included documents related to the audit, from the Governor’s office, and from David Kooris, acting chair of the port authority. CT Examiner staff were not able to review these documents for the writing of this story.
Referring to a state audit of the port authority for fiscal 2016 and 2017, John Rasimas, the deputy state auditor, told the committee the port authority failed to adopt very basic financial procedures and showed “significant deficiencies” which included undocumented expenses and a lack of accounting records. He said the state would have its audit report of the port authority’s 2018 and 2019 fiscal years ready in about two months.
Lewis firing still unexplained
Since Scott Bates stepped down as chair of the port authority on June 22, in what has been explained as a voluntary decision, the port authority has seen a raft of unexplained or poorly-explained personnel changes, including the firing of office manager and ethics compliance officer, Gerri Lewis on July 9; and a decision on July 12 to place Matthews on paid leave, which was not formally announced for several days.
Rep. Devin Carney (R-Old Saybrook) questioned Kooris on why Matthews was placed on paid leave on July 12.
“It sounds like the only reason he was put on leave was his email to… I believe it was Kevin Blacker and several reporters were cc’d on the email, is that correct?”
Kooris replied that the email was part of the reason, but not all.
“It was actually that, partially, but it was subsequent comments to Mr. Collins that were published in a column that I believe was posted digitally on Thursday the 11th and in print on Friday the 12th,” he said.
Carney asked whether other factors contributed to the decision. “So there is nothing else to your knowledge that Mr. Matthews did wrong during his tenure as executive director to warrant an administrative leave and potential separation?”
Kooris replied that Matthews’ leave resulted solely from his remarks regarding Blacker.
“That was the exclusive impetus for him being put on leave,” Kooris said.
Carney asked why Gerri Lewis was fired on July 9.
Kooris said he had reviewed the file and consulted with counsel.
“I don’t think I should say anything other than reiterate that counsel has subsequently reviewed those actions which were taken in consultation with an HR consultant and we have not to date identified any irregularities or improprieties,” he said. “There is no correlation between Lewis and Matthews.”
An urgency regarding wind deal
Regarding a pending $93 million state pier deal with Ørsted, the Danish wind power company, Lemar expressed a sense of urgency and concern about the port authority’s ability to negotiate.
“The opportunity we have is short-term and I want to make sure that if it is the right opportunity, if that is the direction we should be going, if that partnership with the wind developer is the right choice for Connecticut, that the people making that decision are the right people,” he said.
Paul Mounds Jr., chief operating officer for the Office of the Governor, testified that the governor wanted to “provide a sense of stability as we go into discussions as it deals with a potential wind deal.”
Kooris testified that the Office of Policy and Management was lending the port authority “extra resources” to help during wind negotiations. He told members of that committee that, “we have begun meeting with companies from the U.K. and Denmark.”
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport) said the wind deal was a rare economic opportunity. “Give us some reassurance we’re not going to miss out,” he said.
Kooris expressed concern that the timeline for revamping the authority was longer than the window available for negotiations.
According to Kooris, delaying the wind deal until after the port authority’s finances and personnel issues have been resolved, could result in a lost opportunity.
“If we fix everything at the Connecticut Port Authority, we will have missed that opportunity,” he said.
At the end of the Connecticut Port Authority hearing, Devlin said the port authority had been established “with a lot of hope of great things that could happen.”
“And the actions of a few individuals — Scott Bates, who is still serving as our Assistant Secretary of the State for Connecticut, also Bonnie Reemsnyder and Mr. Matthews — have tarnished the agency,” she said. “And while we’re all excited about the future and the jobs and the economic development that the port authority can bring, I don’t want to brush over where we still have a lot of questions about what actually happened.”
The Connecticut Port Authority’s next meeting will be held at noon on Sept. 4 at Fort Trumbull. The agency will hold a public information meeting on Sept. 17 in New London, venue and time to be announced.