NEW LONDON — In a public session with an agenda focused on issues of ethics and transparency, the Connecticut Port Authority (CPA) board approved several resolutions Wednesday overhauling oversight of its finance and management practices. The new policies come after the recent departure of port authority and staff and leadership, an audit detailing years of poor accounting practices, as well as reports of misused funds.
After a closed executive session lasting 40 minutes, the board also voted in favor of negotiating a separation and release agreement without severance for the authority’s current executive director, Evan Matthews. Matthews has been on paid leave since July 12. Acting Chairman David Kooris said Matthews was placed on leave because of comments he made to the press about CPA critic Kevin Blacker, of Noank, which were “not fitting of a public sector official.”
“They were inappropriate and he was addressed in accordance. Since he was placed on leave and the port authority has come under additional scrutiny, which has caused the board to take a closer look and to become more involved in day-to-day operations, we have come to the conclusion that it is the best situation for us and for him that we enter into a separation agreement, effective with his resignation, assuming that he executes the agreement at the end of this month,” said Kooris.
Board member Linda Savitsky, Deputy Treasurer of the State of Connecticut, cast the lone “no” vote. In a statement to the press, Jackie Primeau, a spokeswoman for the Office of the State Treasurer, explained her vote: “The Office of the Treasurer feels the process has gone on long enough and the Executive Director should be terminated immediately. Given the well documented challenges of the Authority, the Board’s attention should be refocused on the important work at hand and restoring confidence in the Port Authority.”
Absent from the board’s discussion was the still-unexplained firing of Gerri Lewis, the port authority’s former office manager and ethics compliance officer, by Matthews on July 9 .
Kooris said Lewis’ firing was within Matthews’ administrative authority.
“It was performance-based, that’s all I can really say. The executive director within his authority separated with her from the authority,” Kooris said.
At the meeting, the board voted unanimously to appoint Cassandra Berthiaume, who was hired as a fiscal administrator at the authority in 2018, as Ethics Compliance Officer. She was appointed interim officer after Lewis was fired in July.
A Demonstration on ethics
Among the meeting’s first agenda items was a public, hour-long training with officials from the Freedom of Information office and the Connecticut Office of State Ethics, which David Kooris, acting chair of the port authority, said would set the tone for both the meeting and the authority’s actions moving forward.
“We’re choosing to do that in open session with the board and the staff and you all because we thought it would kind of set a baseline to ensure that we’re all on the same page and acting with the same level of information going forward. That’s going to be a substantial component of what we do today,” he said.
The board unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a Memo of Understanding (MOU) with the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) that will support Lamont’s directive for an independent review of the quasi-public agency’s financial and management practices. In the agreement, OPM will be authorized to hire temporary staff and consultants, to be known as “OPM Resources,” to oversee all of the authority’s financial decisions “until an independent audit of the CPA’s financial, procurement and management practices is complete.”
Retired Navy Captain Paul Whitescarver, whom the port authority hired as a consultant in July, said he had looked at outside quasi-public agencies’ policies for guidance and and used ideas from the Connecticut Airport Authority to create an ethics policy that also encompassed state ethics requirements. The board unanimously approved the adoption of the policy, which Kooris said was “subject to amendment and evolution” in the future.
The board also added members its finance committee, which had lost members after allegations of misused funds led to the resignation of former finance and port authority chair Bonnie Reemsnyder in July, and board member and previous port authority chair Scott Bates in August.
David Kooris, Jeffrey Beckham, Linda Savitsky, Parker Wise and John Johnson were elected to the finance committee. David Pohorylo, who objected to the lack of transparency and structure in the authority’s finances at the June 19 meeting, resigned from the committee.
The board also discussed, but did not vote on, a procurement policy and the potential establishment of a small purchasing policy, which had been introduced last year.
Kooris said the meeting accomplished a symbolic and structural reboot for the port authority, adding that details about the State Pier deal would be discussed at an upcoming meeting.
“Today was the first step, a lot of important actions, foundational in nature that we think will pave the way for future actions over the coming months. I can’t guarantee that all of the additional policies and procedures will be put into place or amended as appropriate by the end of this year but that’s kind of my working target,” he said. “We continue to move ahead with the harbor development agreement in parallel — and you see that no action was taken on that today as I committed to publicly that we would refrain from doing so until at least the public meeting on Sept. 17.”
The Connecticut Port Authority will hold a public information meeting on Sept. 17 at the Holiday Inn in New London. Although the time has yet to be announced, but it will likely be an evening event.
This story was updated on Sept. 5 at 2:07 p.m to include a statement by the Office of the State Treasurer.