Lamont should demand resignations at scandal-ridden port authority

When I finally got a meeting Monday with Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, the new board chairwoman of the Connecticut Port Authority, after turning up without an appointment and hanging around the waiting room of her town office, I had a lot of questions.

Before I got around to asking about why she put port authority Executive Director Evan Matthews on leave, without a meeting or vote by the full board, and why the port authority office manager has been placed on leave, I first wanted to hear what she had to say about her daughter's photographs, which hang on the walls of the port authority's Old Saybrook offices.

She admitted that the authority paid her daughter $3,000 for six of the photographs, and she said she made a mistake in letting that happen, a mistake she added she will now try to correct. She acknowledged she knew I had been at the port authority offices earlier in the day, asking about the photographs.

"If they determine I should resign, I will," the first selectwoman said, but added she would "hate to" now because the authority is in such turmoil.

She should rethink that and resign immediately, and if she doesn't, Gov. Ned Lamont should demand it. There are provisions in the law that established the port authority for removal of board members.

Allowing some of the millions of dollars of public money swirling around the agency to be directed toward a family member is unacceptable conduct for a public official and raises a lot of red flags.

Lamont also should demand the resignation of authority board member Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of state, who stepped down as port authority board chairman last month.

The port authority in 2017 hired, without a competitive request for proposals, a former associate of Bates, someone with no apparent experience in port management or development, as a $50-an-hour consultant.

When I asked Matthews two weeks ago about the hiring of Andrew Lavigne as a consultant, without an RFP, he told me that it was an "emergency measure" because he was sick and hospitalized at the time and the authority needed someone quickly.

I've since learned this was a lie. Matthews was out on sick leave in the spring and back on the job by July, according to meeting minutes. Matthews personally signed on Aug. 30 a consulting proposal by Lavigne dated Aug. 28. The proposal had a section on "my qualifications" that had many vague boasts like "proven track record of successfully operationalizing strategic plans" and "creative thinker with affinity for problem solving" but not one single fact about his specific job history or education. The proposal is so crude and vague, it is shameful.

The board, strangely, at its meeting on Feb. 7, 2018, a full four months after Matthews signed the vague contract with Lavigne, approved a motion ratifying Lavigne's proposal for the $50-an-hour consulting job, for both 2017 and 2018.

Board Chairman Scott Bates introduced the measure but abstained on the eventual motion to hire Lavigne as consultant, made by Reemsnyder.

This is port authority business as usual for the board chairpersons, hire unqualified friends as consultants without competitive bids and allow the agency to pay thousands of dollars for your daughter's art. I got the impression that everyone at the authority knew whose photographs were hanging in the lobby.

Curiously, one of the authority's many paid public relations consultants, Duby McDowell, president of McDowell Jewett Communications, sent a frantic email to The Day the night my column reported Lavigne's hiring, asking for a correction for something that was not wrong.

McDowell did not say anything about the lie from Matthews I reported in that column, even though every port authority official would have to have known it was patently untrue that Lavigne was hired while Matthews was hospitalized.

Reemsnyder had pretty evasive answers for my other questions Monday. She said the office manager, Gerri Lewis, was placed on leave by Matthews before he was placed on leave. She said, incredibly, she didn't know any of the details about why she was put on leave.

She said she didn't know anything about a whistleblower complaint filed with state auditors alleging misuse of funds by authority management.

She actually rolled her eyes when I asked, in response to her saying she is in charge of the agency in Matthews' absence, how that could be, since the enabling legislation gives the board no such authorization. The board is given only the authority to hire a director to run the agency.

She said she has been consulting with the agency's law firm, Robinson & Cole, in acting without board meetings and votes in putting Matthews on leave and running the port authority herself.

She said there will be more clarity in what is going on after a special meeting of the board scheduled for Wednesday. One of the agenda items is a resolution to hire Paul Whitescarver, the Navy captain who recently retired as commander of the Naval Submarine Base, as an executive consultant.

The fact that someone with obvious professionalism and integrity, who actually knows something about ships, might soon be on board is the best report I've heard from the port authority in a while.

I saw Lavigne at the authority offices Monday and asked him about a response to a question I asked him earlier this year — when the port authority was still keeping secret plans to fill in seven acres between its two piers — what study a rendering showing the combined pier came from. He said it was a single picture commissioned by an artist, as a concept, and not part of any study. There was no study or report, he said.

Now that I have in hand the full report that includes the single "commissioned" rendering as part of a larger series and full explanation, I see Lavigne lied to me, to hide something from the public. Lying is part of the culture there, I suppose. He told me Monday he is no longer authorized to speak to me.

The legislation establishing the port authority says board members should have business and management experience and have experience or expertise in at least one of the following four areas: international trade, marine transportation, finance or economic development.

Some board members have plenty of such expertise. Reemsnyder, who has run a child care center and home inspection business, and Bates, whose resume on the authority website claims leadership roles in policy and government for more than 25 years, seem not to.

It's more reason for them to resign and ensure that henceforth the authority serves only the public good and not also the personal interests of its board members.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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