Amidst Criticism and Funding Cuts, State Board Continues Investigation of Port Authority

The State Contracting Standards Board has struggled under budget constraints to adjust to its newly-defined authority over the Connecticut Port Authority – but members of the board are pushing back against criticism that they don’t need to exist, and are defending the importance of their role in reviewing how state contracts are awarded.

At a Sept. 21 Connecticut Port Authority Finance Committee meeting, Jeff Beckham, a member of the port authority board, said that the contracting standards board was “looking for a reason to exist” by renewing its investigation into the port authority, and said that members of that board “have axes to grind.”

“If you follow closely the legislative process, the Lamont administration, just like the Malloy administration, and the Rell administration before them, have steadfastly resisted giving the contracting standards board much in the way of resources or staff,” said Beckham, who is also Undersecretary for Legislative Affairs in the Office of Policy and Management. 

“We don’t actually think they need to exist, and we will continue to have that posture. They are looking for a reason to exist, and they have people out there in the world who would like to use them for their reasons,” he continued. 

Beckham’s comments came in response to port authority Executive Director John Henshaw calling the investigation “politically charged,” and port authority Chair David Kooris saying it was frustrating that the standards board had not spoken to members of the port authority, but had spoken to several critics of the port authority’s controversial $235 million redevelopment of the New London State Pier into an offshore wind hub — including Kevin Blacker and DRVN owner Steve Farrelly, whose road salt business was pushed off the pier to make way for the project.

“Some of the document requests that have come across most recently are very obviously targeted to try and prove the conclusion that some [members of the State Contracting Standards Board] have already reached,” Kooris said at the Sept. meeting. 

“It’s really interesting to see the way in which they have allowed themselves to be rolled up in politics,” Kooris continued. “And [Henshaw] and I are cautiously optimistic that with our pending response to this current document request — which comes with a request from us to meet directly with their executive director — that will reset the relationship to be a productive one. Because right now, it’s clear that they have an axe to grind.”

Henshaw and Kooris said they planned to cooperate fully with the requests of the standards board, despite their belief that the investigation fell outside the scope of the standards board’s authority to review whether the port authority’s contracts are in line with the authority’s policies and procedures for procuring contracts. 

Beckham agreed that the port authority should “simply respond with facts.”

“They clearly have axes to grind, or they are in talks with people who have axes to grind,” Beckham said. 

At the standards board’s meeting last Friday, Chair Larry Fox said members had reached out to the port authority last year when the board first started receiving complaints about contracts related to the State Pier project. 

Back in February, Attorney General William Tong determined that the board’s powers extended only to state contracting agencies but not quasi-public agencies — which halted the board’s investigation of the port authority. 

In June, when the Connecticut General Assembly specifically authorized the standards board to investigate the port authority, the investigation resumed, Fox said. But, funding for five additional staff positions at the standards board was cut, leaving only Executive Director David Guay and one intern on staff. 

Last month, the standards board requested that Tong investigate “suspected collusion” in how a port authority public relations contract was awarded to Dealy Mahler in 2017, pointing to ties between the firm and former port authority Chair Scott Bates that were the subject of a series of columns by The Day’s David Collins in 2019.

Fox said that he and Guay have every intention of speaking directly with Kooris, Henshaw, and other members of the port authority and to continue the investigation even though resources were limited. 

“I won’t apologize for the fact that we don’t have a lot of staff,” Fox said. “We don’t have a lot of staff, and we are indeed fortunate to have our graduate intern and David to work with us, and our board members, who put in a lot of work. But there’s no question that we are hamstrung by a lack of staff, but we are working hard on this.”

Contracting Standards Board member Lauren Gauthier, who is leading the work group investigating the port authority, said the position that the board should not exist was unfortunate for the state. Because so much of the state’s money is spent on contracts, she said, it’s important to have a board that is dedicated to looking at how those contracts are awarded.

“Connecticut taxpayers expect and deserve to know that contracts awarded with their money are handled according to the strict standards of fairness and accountability, free from any political influence or consideration,” Gauthier said. “So we’re here to make sure that everything is above reproach.”

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