Excuses don't explain port authority abuses

Accountability was in short supply at Wednesday’s follow-up Transportation Committee hearing into the problems at the Connecticut Port Authority.

Evan Matthews, the ousted executive director, pointed to a stroke he suffered in late May 2017, just as the relatively new quasi-public agency was trying to get up and running. It sidelined him for a time, forced him to work from home, and placed added pressure on members of the volunteer board of directors.

A stroke is an awful thing. But it does not explain “the lack of fundamental controls in accounting,” as auditors testified at the same hearing.

It does not explain why the state Auditors of Public Accounts, in a sampling of 252 transactions in port authority accounts, found 52, totaling $17,401, that had no supporting documentation, with 36 pertaining to restaurant and hotel expenses.

Eight transactions that were documented, and totaled $1,910, “included alcohol which appeared expensive,” states the second of two audit reports conducted in the authority’s relatively brief history, the second undertaken after a whistleblower complained about possible fiscal malfeasance.

In response to committee questions, two former chairmen, Scott Bates and Bonnie Reemsnyder, noted the new authority did not get much direction from the state, had a lot on its plate as it worked to find a port management firm for State Pier in New London before a lease expired, and saw these challenges compounded by Matthews’ illness.

It was a difficult situation, no doubt, but it only goes so far in excusing the lack of basic policies and procedures spelled out in state law, including — in addition to the accounting deficiencies — incomplete personnel policies, poor record keeping, and insufficient rules to govern travel, meals and entertainment.

Bates, who was elected the first chairman of the new authority in February 2016 and served in that capacity until last June, offered no good explanation as to why both a marketing and communications company and a former consultant, Andrew Lavigne, he had previously worked with landed jobs with the port authority — without competitive bids — even though their experience did not match well with the mission.

Addressing excessive legal fees, Bates pointed to the legal costs associated with the issuing of requests for proposals for a State Pier management group and the subsequent negotiations with the winning bidder, Gateway.

That may explain many of the legal fees that went from $243,685 in fiscal-year 2018 to $670,720 in 2019, but not why the powerhouse Robinson & Cole law firm was paid to do such basic tasks as responding to general audit questions, preparing agendas and assisting with annual reports.

Even in explaining his resignation from the authority on Aug. 9, Bates tried a positive spin, only to get caught in an apparent lie.

Sen. Henri Martin, the ranking Republican on the committee, questioned Bates whether he had been asked to resign.

“They did not, it was a personal decision,” Bates testified.

But Paul Mounds, chief operating officer, later testified that Gov. Ned Lamont had urged Bates to resign, a characterization confirmed by Lamont’s Communications Director Max Reiss on Thursday.

Bates’ duplicity on the straight-forward question is more troubling given his important role as deputy secretary of state — his full-time job.

This is not to say the port authority failed in its mission. Its accomplishments are impressive. Gateway’s payments for use of the New London port more than doubles those of the prior tenant, and Gateway has agreed to invest $30 million in upgrades. The port is set to be transformed into a hub for supplying offshore wind development. As chairman, Bates was the driving force in these initiatives.

Such deals will provide revenue for the authority, supplementing and, eventually, replacing the $400,000 annual state stipend.

But those entrusted with state resources, even those who volunteer, have a responsibility to manage them prudently. That didn’t happen. And while the auditors said they found nothing that rose to the level of corruption, the abuses were apparent.

Despite its stumbling, troubling start, the port authority can play an important role in working to maximize the state’s maritime assets.

The goods news is that Melissa McCaw, the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management, outlined for the committee a detailed plan to address the authority’s shortcomings and develop a strategy to better organize it. The administration will work with the port authority to hire a new executive director by early next year.

Transportation Committee members pledged their support for these efforts, noting some of the lessons will be applicable to improving other quasi-public agencies.

It’s time to start the next chapter.

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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