Mystic — When CT Examiner talked with Evan Matthews, former executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority, for nearly four hours on November 22, we whittled down the whopping 14,000-word conversation down to a publishable 2,300 words.
In what remained of that 14,000-word conversation, Matthews discussed the port authority’s Finance Committee and its chair Bonnie Reemsnyder, cargo at State Pier and his desire to speak at the Transportation Committee’s port authority hearing in Hartford tomorrow. He said he did not speak at August 20 hearing on the advice of counsel.
Matthews was placed on administrative leave on July 12 and forced to resign on September 30. He was hired on September 1, 2016 to lead the organization, a quasi-public agency funded by an annual $400,000 from the state, that was established in 2014 and became operational in 2016.
Matthews commented that when he began at the port authority, all funding came through the Department of Economic Community Development, which was slow and cumbersome.
“Our first year, all of our funding came from DECD, so if I wanted to go buy copy paper, I had to go fill out a requisition form and send it to Hartford and have 16 people sign it and maybe a month later, they’d pay the bill… it was totally unacceptable … so I said screw this,” Matthews said. The port authority then opened its own checking account to create a smoother process though the $400,000 always remained in the state accounting system, he said.
“I called up Logistec’s controller and said start sending your checks into our checking account so that we can start paying our bills on time,” he said
At this point, Matthews said he was one of three port authority employees — the other two were Joe Salvatore and Alan Steven, both formerly of the Department of Transportation.
The Finance Committee, chaired by former port authority chair Bonnie Reemsnyder, was set up to act as a type of Chief Financial Officer. Also on the committee were Scott Bates, Deputy Secretary of State and former chair of the port authority, and port authority members David Pohorylo, Parker Wise and John Johnson.
“We set up a finance committee to act as a controller — a CFO — to keep track of what I was doing, to sign off on stuff … Bonnie would do that,” he said. “We’d meet on a monthly basis to review all the invoices — here’s the checking account, the budget, here’s what we’re doing with the budget.”
The amount of money outside of the state’s $400,000 appropriation was relatively low and could be managed with a simple spreadsheet, he said.
“The other thing is that we’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. The reason we have a robust accounting system is we can track it in Excel because it was a very small amount of money. We used to have about $100,000 in our checking account but when it started off under Logistec one month we’d get a check for $5,000, another month we’d get $60,000, it was all over the place,” he said. “But the $400,000 always stayed in CORE, which is the state’s accounting system and they were managing it. We’d go and fill out an invoice and stuff like that. This whole thing that we didn’t have an accounting system, no, we had the state’s accounting system.”
There was no template and no roadmap for setting up the organization’s finance systems, Matthews said.
“That was the thing, every single time we were doing something for the first time, there were no rules, we were making it up as we go, we used to say that a lot. It was a start-up exercise that had very scant resources and staff and we were always trying to do the best we could,” he said. “We always said as soon as the deal is done, we’ll go back and. That’s the irony right is they basically fired me right before the time when I would have had the time to go back and retrench and start to create some of those systems because we knew what we needed and what we didn’t need.”
Regarding criticism that Gateway, which began a 20-year contract to operate State Pier in May and operates a terminal in New Haven, had diverted business from New London to New Haven, Matthews said the only business that moved was Clipper Steel Services, an international steel carrier with offices in Houston, Barranquilla, Copenhagen, Beijing and Hong Kong.
He said Clipper called on New London because of its relationship with then-terminal operator Logistec, which operated State Pier for 22 years prior to Gateway — but New Haven was a better choice logistically.
“Logistec used to operate Bridgeport, New Haven and New London — and now everyone’s having a crisis that Gateway is operating New Haven and New London — when Logistec moved out of New Haven, they took Clipper Steel with them,” Matthews said. “[Clipper] used to call in New Haven because all of the steel processing is going to Milford. In and around New Haven there’s an incredible amount of steel processing.”
Matthews said steel coil is sold delivered to the customer and the cost of trucking is built into the steel price, making it more expensive to bring in steel to New London compared to New Haven.
“So if you have to truck it 50 more miles, that makes it more expensive for the shipping line or the terminal operator, not the customer,” he said. “Someone is paying that trucking — so as soon as [Clipper] saw they could have a ship go back to New Haven, they jumped on it.”
Logistec was serving about one steel ship per month, which is considered a low level of activity, Matthews said.
“In my old job we were doing five ships a week — it’s crazy the level of activity [at State Pier], nothing’s happening and everyone is all of a sudden outraged that you’re going to miss that one ship a month,” he said. “There’s no evidence the copper is still coming in to New London and the salt is still coming in to New London. This whole maritime argument is like a red herring — it doesn’t make sense.”
Matthews said he was the sole maritime representative for the port authority and with his absence the organization will have no expertise in the maritime shipping industry.
“First of all, I disappeared, I’m the maritime person, and so if no one is willing to talk to me then no one understands at that level … the terminal operator can tell you,” he said.
Reasons to speak
Matthews said he told his lawyer he wanted to speak at the August 20 Transportation Committee hearing but was rebuffed by the Connecticut Port Authority board, raising his concerns that he might be scapegoated.
“My lawyer reached out to CPA to say I’m happy to come and they made it really clear they didn’t want me to speak for them,” he said. “I’m still really afraid of getting blamed for all of this stuff — I still think there’s a possibility I’m the fall guy.”
He said he didn’t know “how it went sideways so fast.” Building up more political capital would have helped but with a hectic work schedule and small staff, it wasn’t a priority, he said.
“I do know we were probably overwhelmed by the scale of the wind deal and when you have your eyes on a revenue stream of $3 million a year people are going to try to take it away from you,” he said. “We hadn’t built up the political capital. I don’t think a lot of people could pick me out of a lineup because I didn’t get out and build those relationships the way I wanted to because it’s such a small organization. I mean, to cover the entire Connecticut coastline with two or three people.”
He said that when the wind deal wasn’t signed on July 1, Gov. Lamont essentially removed him from his position, without dialogue or explanation.
“When it faltered instead of trying to figure out why, the governor just came down and put the kibosh on it and I don’t know why he did that — I thought I was doing really well,” he said. “And with all the things I had accomplished, I thought I’d at least earned the opportunity to come in and at least say what are you doing? What are the photographs about? Nothing.”
He said he will answer questions at tomorrow’s hearing. His being silenced, along with others who were advised not to speak on August 20, has been counterproductive for the port authority, he said.
“It’s been my frustration that the whole time the whole thing was imploding, the lawyers were telling everyone not to say anything — and I’m like, you need to say something,” he said. “I have nothing to hide, it was a series of unfortunate events and I don’t think it served our organization well by firing our office manager and the ED in the same week and basically cutting him off and not talking to him again until September.”