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Authority's positive response to our 'ethical' suggestion

The Connecticut Port Authority has taken a lot of heat, and for good reason. The state legislature is debating everything from requiring it to file more frequent reports with greater transparency to dissolving it.

Meanwhile, ousting a road-salt distributor from State Pier in New London in the midst of this nasty winter — to make way for redevelopment that remains uncertain and is not close to happening yet — has been about as popular as Cruella de Vil’s approach to dalmatian puppies.

In the past, business was steered to folks with board connections and authority plastic used to charge some dubious expenses.

David Kooris, the current chair of the embattled authority board, contends a new corner has been turned and the authority has learned from past mistakes. And, to mitigate matters a bit, it did give the road-salt distributor a chance to sell off its mountain of a salt at the pier before ceasing its operations there.

So last Sunday we issued a suggestion in our editorial — or maybe it was a challenge; let a third party issue an opinion concerning a couple of ethical questions that have been raised about the authority.

To its credit, the authority is meeting the challenge.

Board member John S. Johnson of New London owns a 35,000-square-foot warehouse on Crystal Avenue near State Pier. He has voted on policy decisions concerning the future use of the State Pier facility and its planned development as a hub supporting offshore wind-power development.

Johnson contends there is no conflict because none of the contracts involving the planned development directly relate to his property and none of his current tenants have business with the State Pier operator, Gateway.

Yet the value of Johnson’s property would almost certainly increase if the planned development he has voted on happens. Is this a conflict?

Last week, Johnson emailed the Office of State Ethics to seek an opinion on whether his voting on matters involving State Pier presents a legal conflict. Executive Director Peter J. Lewandowski responded the office “will be happy to provide” it and give guidance for any votes going forward.

On Friday Johnson said he will expand the request to include whether his prior interest in buying a property in Old Saybrook (the deal fell through, he said) presents any sort of conflict given the port authority has since rented office space there.

More complicated are the issues surrounding the hiring by the port authority in May 2018 of Seabury Capital Group. The authority board settled on Seabury to manage the process of finding an operator for State Pier and also used the firm to negotiate the contract with the winning bidder, Gateway, which also runs the New Haven port.

As noted in our earlier editorial, Seabury has been paid about $700,000, including a controversial payment of $523,000, the latter payment the result of a settlement with the authority board over how much it should be paid under “success fee” provisions in its contract. Three of the 13 board members voted against the controversial payment when it was approved last July. The State Contracting Standards Board has questioned the propriety of the arrangement.

The ethics issue involves the fact that the contract with Seabury was signed just a few months after Henry Juan III, a managing director with Seabury, left the port authority board. A Republican legislative leader had appointed him.

Kooris argues this is not a conflict, as cozy as it may appear. Juan was gone when bids were evaluated and was not a participant in his employer’s proposal, Kooris said.

When Kooris contacted the ethics office this week about the matter, Lewandowski said it could not provide an opinion on past conduct.

The Office of State Ethics can, however, issue a decision and penalties if past conduct brought to its attention is judged unethical. And this matter has now been brought to its attention, which Kooris recognized in his correspondence.

“You can pursue it if you feel it’s warranted,” he wrote to the executive director.

It is also worth noting that the port authority has an “ethics liaison,” Finance Director Veronica Calvert. In his communications with Lewandowski, Kooris said Calvert will “start to establish a relationship with your office.”

These are positive signs.

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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, 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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