Port Authority stink imperils New London wind plan

This is the reality that Gov. Ned Lamont must deal with. The stinking, rotting fish that is the Connecticut Port Authority scandal has been stuffed into the same bag as his ambitious plan to transform State Pier in New London into a hub supporting offshore wind development.

With each revelation, the scent surrounding how the port authority operated when it was making big decisions grows fouler. An unnerved public at this point doesn’t trust anything about it or anything that might come from it. The denizens of the authority either say nothing or point towards each other as the source of the odorous conduct.

Yes, the governor has taken steps to address the matter. A review of this and other quasi-public agencies is underway. There is new leadership. An audit is pending. A legislative hearing was held. (Another is needed, with former port authority leaders required to testify under oath.) 

But Lamont must do more.

As this newspaper has tried to get at agency records, which are by law public, the authority has come up with excuses and delays to block our path. It has the appearance of biding time, forcing us to wait the many months it will take to get Freedom of Information Commission rulings. The current chair of the authority, David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic Community Development, works for the governor. Lamont should deliver the message to expedite the release of records and be reponsive to press inquiries.

At a hearing Tuesday at the Holiday Inn in New London, the Lamont administration and Connecticut Port Authority are expected to present the outlines of a $93 million public-private partnership deal to make the New London port a major player in support of the massive windfarm development planned off our Northeast shores. Doors open at 5 p.m. The presentation begins at 5:30.

The administration considers this plan a satisfying meal for a city and region long starved to see New London’s deep-water port achieve its economic potential. But that rotting fish has killed appetites.

In the most recent accounts, we’ve learned that Executive Director Evan Matthews — on administrative leave since July 18 — hit the $1,500 daily cap on his authority debit card while on a junket to a Houston trade show. He then got mad at the port authority finance officer because he couldn’t keep spending. Matthews was accompanied by consultant Andrew Lavigne, he of the $94,000 salary, whose background had nothing to do with ports or maritime business, but who had the good fortune of having previously worked with Scott Bates, the former chairman of the authority and still Connecticut’s deputy secretary of state.

Bates opted not to continue as chairman shortly before the troubling revelations about the agency began to surface. Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, up for re-election, had served as chair of the Finance Committee and, for a brief time after Bates’ departure, as authority chairwoman. She too resigned.

We have now heard from Gerri Lewis, the port authority office manager fired July 9. She contends the authority was rife with fiscal mismanagement, the top executive freely spending on meals, drinks and décor, in some cases family and family friends benefiting. That’s why she was fired by Matthews, claims Lewis. Giving credence to her assertions was the effort by port authority lawyers to get her to sign a nondisclosure agreement, barring her from talking about any of it, in return for $5,000.

She, thankfully, refused.

This rotten fish may be a small one as measured against some major scandals that have rocked this state, but there is no question it has raised serious doubts about the complex deal — involving Gateway New London LLC., the firm hired by the port authority to manage State Pier, Bay State Wind (a joint venture of Orsted, the Danish wind-power development company), New England-based Eversource, and the state — that is about to be unveiled.

It could be transformative for the long-underutilized port. And we’d like to see the deal judged on its merits. Will the projected jobs created and resulting economic growth justify the state’s investment? How will that investment be calculated? What revenues will flow to New London as host community? Can the pier continue to support traditional cargo and related activities? If not at all, or not as much, what are the implications?

But trust in the deal will be tied to Lamont's ability to clear the air. It is not enough to tell the public to move on, to not to worry about the stink. He has to figure out how to get rid of it. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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