Bribery too at the Port Authority?

Evan Matthews, the executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority, who earlier this month threatened to ask police to investigate authority critic Kevin Blacker, actually offered him a consulting job in May, a proposed deal that certainly had the look and feel of a bribe.

"If we are successful in getting the State Pier redeveloped, would you be interested in consulting for us to help with the Thames River plan," Matthews asked Blacker in an email sent the morning of April 11.

Matthews was placed on paid leave this month by Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, the former port authority chairwoman who resigned when it was revealed her daughter was paid $3,000 by the authority for a series of art photographs, in a deal she acknowledged was arranged by Matthews.

The authority and governor's office have refused to discuss Matthews' leave and have acknowledged a Freedom of Information request for public documents relating to the action but have so far hasn't provided them.

Blacker revealed what he called a bribe offer from Matthews in a blast email over the weekend in which he copied the governor, the attorney general and the press.

"Was the motivation behind this job offer to silence me. Bribe me with a job to quiet me down," he wrote. "I believed that was the intention of their offer at the time, and I believe that now."

Blacker noted that he has no qualifications for such a job.

"I mow lawns for a living and cut hay. I have a degree in soil science. I have no experience operating or planning ports," Blacker wrote. "Did the CPA really intend to let a guy with a lawn mower plan how the upper Thames would be used?"

Max Reiss, spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont, when asked about the Blacker weekend email, said: "The governor's office is aware of the email but is not prepared to comment. We are still looking for more information."

Blacker's description of what he called a bribe reminded me of an offer made to me at the time.

At about the same time Blacker was becoming a thorn in the agency's side, speaking out about the way it was run and the lack of transparency in its plans to close the port to traditional cargo, I was also writing critical columns about the port authority.

Scott Bates of Stonington, the deputy secretary of state, who served as chairman of the port authority at the time, approached me where I was standing one morning next to the water fountain in the Mystic YMCA. Bates resigned the chairmanship shortly before Evans was placed on leave but retains a board seat.

Bates was surprisingly friendly that morning, given how critically I had written about the agency he was running, and then he made me an offer. I know you are interested in historic buildings, he told me, and I could talk to some people I know at the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation about getting you a seat on their board.

It wasn't a pitch for something with compensation, like the one made to Blacker, but, like Blacker, I took it as a pitch that seemed aimed at silencing or at least blunting my criticism of the port authority, a favor I would owe Bates.

The strange thing is that anyone like Bates, who has been around and worked in government for so long, would know that anyone with journalistic integrity wouldn't take a board seat like that, with all the potential conflict with news stories.

Blacker, in his weekend email, made the interesting parallel to his being offered a consulting job even though he has no qualifications to Bates' arranging a no-bid $50-an-hour consulting contract for an associate, despite the person's lack of qualifications in port management.

By the time Matthews turned from job-offering good cop to threatening bad cop with Blacker, he told me, responding to my questions about his email suggesting he would call the cops, there was something "off" and maybe autistic or anti-social about the port authority critic.

Nothing about Blacker changed from April to July. So why was he offering that person a consulting contract with the port authority, if not to shut him up.

Clearly Blacker was getting under the skin of authority officials with his claims of malfeasance and secrecy over the backroom dealing to use $35 million in borrowed public money for a $93 million transformation of New London's port, on behalf of a Danish wind company.

I salute the legislators who are calling for a hearing into this mess and demanding answers from the governor.

What they really need to do is insist that no deal gets done without it getting public review and input. The port authority should be made to hear from the public and deliberate in public on any deal that would close New London's port to cargo for the better part of the next 20 years.

The governor and his lieutenants admit they are fast tracking this, so the secret deal can be ratified by the board before the public even sees it.

The legislators need to act fast, too.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

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