MYSTIC — Evan Matthews, former executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority, sat down with CT Examiner’s Cate Hewitt and Gregory Stroud on Sunday for a nearly four hour conversation ranging from details concerning the port authority during his tenure, his health, the wind deal at State Pier, to his hopes of clearing his name so that he can continue his maritime career.
The interview was the first time Matthews has spoken publicly since the port authority placed him on administrative leave on July 12 and subsequently forced him to resign on September 30. Matthews did not attend the Transportation Committee’s port authority hearing in Hartford on August 20, but said he plans to attend and testify at the December 4 hearing. On November 16, former Connecticut Port Authority Chair Scott Bates also announced he would appear and speak at the hearing.
Matthews’ departure followed a “scandal” concerning a $3,250 purchase of photographs for the port authority’s office in Old Saybrook from board chair Bonnie Reemsnyder’s daughter, Erin Reemsnyder, that Matthews said was mostly manufactured by David Collins, a columnist for The Day.
“Actually I just found out this week that the ethics commission said there’s nothing wrong, no probable cause, that the whole thing about the photographs is a non-issue,” Matthews said.
Matthews showed CT Examiner a November 13 letter from the State of Connecticut Office of State Ethics regarding “In the Evaluation of Evan Matthews, Docket No. 2019-42,” which stated a confidential evaluation had been opened on August 13 regarding possible violations of the Code of Ethics for Public Officials.
“We have concluded the evaluation, and have found insufficient probable cause for the issuance of a formal complaint at this time. As such, our file is now closed,” stated the letter.
“If you take that off the table, then you don’t have anything real — so that was one of the things that wasn’t a scandal,” Matthews said.
Also not a scandal, he said, was his hiring of Libby Slader, an interior designer who was previously identified as a friend of Matthews’ wife, but Matthews said he chose her because he knew her work from his experience in real estate development in Providence.
Nor, he said, was his firing of office manager Gerri Lewis on July 9 a scandal. Part of her job description was to develop policies and procedures, but she never did, nor did she put an accounting system and a central filing system into place. “She was fired because she wasn’t doing her job,” Matthews said.
On May 26, 2017, just eight months after he was hired, Matthews said he suffered a near fatal stroke, that landed him in the hospital for six weeks and left him initially unable to drive. When he met with CT Examiner, Matthews walked with a noticeable limp, and said he continued to feel the effects of the stroke.
Hired September 1, 2016, Matthews said he was under tremendous pressure to make the port authority financially self-sustaining as quickly as possible. The port authority — established in 2014 and operational in 2016 — is a quasi-public agency that receives an annual $400,000 appropriation from the state that is managed by the Core-CT accounting system, but that funding was at risk, he said.
“The legislature never really fully embraced the port authority and so I was worried they would cut the appropriation and we would have been done … We were always trying to get as much stuff done as we could with the very little resources that we had and we were always worried that they were going to cut the funding or that they were cutting our bond capacity. Scott [Bates] and I realized that we were in a precarious situation,” Matthews said. “I think the board members who were involved with politics were really worried about the budget situation and that we were going to get cut because we were an easy target and we were always hyper-aware of what the $400,000 meant to us.”
After his stroke, Matthews said he hired Andrew Lavigne as special projects manager, initially on a $15,000 contract at $15 per hour and eventually as a full-time employee, to help move port authority projects forward.
“I still have a permanent disability from my stroke. All of those controversial things happened as a result of my stroke because I was the only employee and I was down for the count,” he said. “I was a very proficient typer and it takes me a long time to write anything now because I can’t feel my left hand — so I saw Andrew as an opportunity to get a body in there because we didn’t have any employees.”
In the first six months that he returned to work, Matthews said he stayed in hotels occasionally, because his doctors were worried about him driving at night — an accommodation for his health issues.
“It’s people being human and accommodating someone who had a major stroke, no one’s trying to hide anything,” he said.
The wind deal
“I’ve been in the port industry for over 20 years and it’s not everyday that someone walks through the door and is going to give you [$93] million and this is a really, really amazing opportunity for the state of Connecticut and the maritime sector. They’re basically offering to rebuild the port of New London for nothing and pay to use it. They’re basically going to do the improvements and pay to use them. That’s a tremendous deal,” Matthews said.
The port authority’s agreement with Gateway, the terminal operator at State Pier, provides $1 million per year for 20 years, freeing the port authority from the worry of losing its $400,000 state funding, Matthews explained.
In addition, the wind deal with Ørsted and Eversource, if approved, will provide the port authority with an additional $3 million per year, said Matthews.
“Now you’re talking about giving us ‘SHIPP-level’ funds, to reinvest that $3 million a year in marine infrastructure,” he said.
Calling the deal worth over $20 million a “huge success,” Matthews said he couldn’t understand why he was “ridden out of town on the rails” when Governor Lamont took control of the port authority in mid-July and asked for Reemsnyder’s resignation, replacing her with David Kooris from the Department of Economic Community Development.
Matthews suggested that he may have been punished for telling the truth, about the deal, which had not yet been finalized.
“Lamont couldn’t do much more damage to us, he effectively took over the port authority because he’s worried that the deal wasn’t going to get done,” Matthews said. “[He] came in and acted swiftly and decisively and I don’t know what he’s accomplished except to ruin my career and destroy the port authority.”
A lack of bidders
According to Matthews, the port authority conducted a public bid process for State pier, and were surprised not to attract multiple wind developers.
“The other wind developers had the opportunity to bid and none did. Ørsted stepped up and partnered with Gateway and none of the others partnered with an operator — they missed their opportunity,” Matthews said. “I think there is an opportunity for Ørsted to provide services to other wind developers if it comes to that. The thing is they’re not really competitors anymore because they already have their contracts, it’s in their interest to cooperate.”
The public has expressed concern about Ørsted/Eversource as the sole vendor at State Pier, but Matthews said their financial stake should give them certain rights.
“If they’re investing $93 million, they should have the right to exclusivity — that’s a common term in port concessions and most of them are specialized terminals,” he said. “Basically we have a traditional cargo port and wind assembly is going to lease it for three times what we were making as a cargo port.”
Matthews, who is constrained from speaking about the deal by a confidentiality agreement, said the delay in signing the deal is related to mitigating the risk to the public.
“The public should know that the reason why it’s taking so long is that either the governor’s office or the port authority — the public actors — are trying to manage the downside risk to the taxpayers — they’re on your side, they’re trying to get the best deal they can,” he said.
The port authority’s legal fees with Robinson & Cole LLP, of Hartford, increased from about $85,000 in fiscal year 2017 to $670,720 in fiscal year 2019.
“The big increase is we’re using them to negotiate the terminal operator concession and then we’re going from terminal operation concession straight into harbor development and they provide all the legal fees for that,” Matthews said.
But the port authority also used the firm for tasks like writing agendas and minutes, which the office manager should have been doing, Matthews said.
The practice of outsourcing administrative work to the law firm began while Matthews was the only employee, he explained, admitting that “for those prices we could have had an in-house legal counsel to manage the lawyers, some organizations do that. We used them in the very beginning to negotiate these deals to basically augment the staff.” Matthews said, “Glenn [Santoro] used to write the agenda when it was just me. I didn’t have an assistant, so I’d use them to do all of the administrative stuff around the board meeting. It was a known issue, if you asked most board members, they’d say legal fees have to get under control.”
Matthews said none of the other state agencies offered to help, “especially DOT and DECD which are basically our parents — that was frustrating — DOT has teams of lawyers, they could have helped, they could have helped a lot. I see the governor now throwing all kinds of resources at the organization, and where were you years ago?”
Policies and procedures
Responding to State Auditors of Public Accounts reports released in May and on October 31 detailing a lack of formal policies and procedures, Matthews said that the authority’s own lawyers disputed the finding. According to Matthews the authority was under no legal obligation to do so, which has created a storm of misunderstanding.
“I had my lawyer telling me we don’t have to do that and the board is telling me, we don’t think that you guys are legally obligated to do that — so there’s this dispute between our lawyers and the accounts and so that’s why it didn’t happen and then all hell breaks loose and the second audit report goes into the same thing,” he said. “We would have done that if our legal counsel said we had to do that … so that’s why all that stuff didn’t get done.”
Matthews said he knew that the policies should have been developed, whether legally required or not.
“I think the audit is right. Although no fraud was committed, there was definitely an environment where it could easily have been done — I think that’s legitimate — we were in the process,” he said. “I was aware of that and we were making slow efforts to change that given the importance of the harbor development — that’s all we did all day long was work on that thing.”
On his first day on the job, Matthews remembered Tim Sullivan, formerly of the DECD, telling him, “We have to get going on this New London deal.” That was the goal, Matthews said, “he didn’t say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go create all these processes and build an organization first.’”
Matthews said the way Lamont is handling it, “they never should have broken it out of DOT, just let the DOT run it with all the policies and procedures. We weren’t set out to make a bureaucracy. Our main focus was to make sure the organization was secure financially because the state was sending signals about whether they wanted to fund the port authority.”
Matthews said he still doesn’t know why he was put on administrative leave, only that he received a letter from the port authority that was “very vague.”
He said took an organization that was “on life support with one employee and grew it to five employees and now is cash positive and I got fired … and I was never told why … I was not given any severance and they’re holding my unemployment, so I have not made a dime,” he said. “I don’t think I did anything outrageously wrong. I probably could have managed the staff better but it was my first time managing an organization.”
As far as finding his replacement, he said the port authority needs someone with maritime experience person “because they don’t have anyone on staff who’s ever worked in a port before.”
And he said no one is talking about what he achieved.
“We retraded an underperforming state concession and created a financial situation where the port authority is independent from the state in the first three years of operation,” he said. “We created a maritime strategy for the state that didn’t exist before.”
He said the port authority also funded 18 different Small Harbor Improvement Project Programs (SHIPP).
“We [also] actually created an economic impact assessment for the maritime sector — it totally got swept under the carpet because of this whole thing,” he said. “We had been planning to do a roll-out of the economic assessment but ‘photogate’ happened.”
Matthews said he put all of his energy into the State Pier concession because “that basically made us financially independent.”
“It’s ironic now that we were financially independent from the state, we didn’t need the $400,000 anymore,” he said.
Note: This story was corrected to reflect that the accusation was that Libby Slader was a friend of Matthews’ wife, not Bates’ wife as previously stated.
We have also corrected that Andrew Lavigne was initially hired to a $15,000 contract at $50 per hour.