On port authority books, Reemsnyder payments appear to be disguised

If you've been following the unfolding scandal at the Connecticut Port Authority, you know that the agency paid the daughter of former board Chairwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, the first selectwoman of Old Lyme, $3,000 for six photographs used to decorate the authority offices' lobby.

Gov. Ned Lamont demanded Reemsnyder's resignation as board chair after I reported that she acknowledged to me the $3,000 payment to her daughter.

What I have since learned about the payment is that it was made indirectly through a Providence, R.I., decorator, Libby Slader Interior Design, in two installments three months apart in 2017. The payments to Slader were actually for somewhat more than what Reemsnyder says her daughter was paid, a total of $3,750.

I finally got Max Reiss, the new spokesman for Gov. Lamont, to confirm Tuesday, after two phone calls, one a bit heated, with exchanges that ranged from him saying I should ask the port authority's legal department — it doesn't have one — to a grudging confirmation that this is how Reemsnyder's daughter was paid. He then essentially hung up on me, as I asked more questions.

Of course it's bad enough that the agency was buying anything from the daughter of a board member but it's even more alarming that it was evidently done in a way so as not to disclose the payment on the port authority's books.

If true, we can't trust anything in those books.

It's also concerning that the port authority still has not responded, as the scandal roils, to a simple Freedom of Information request made last Thursday for documentation of the payments made to Reemsnyder's daughter, and the governor, even now, won't demand transparency about what's been going on.

This unseemly business was conducted at the port authority when Scott Bates, Connecticut's deputy secretary of the state, was chairman. Evan Matthews, the executive director who since has been placed on leave for unexplained reasons, in addition to organizing the payments to Reemsnyder's daughter, signed a no-bid $50-an-hour consulting contract with Andrew Lavigne, an associate of Bates, even though he had no relevant experience. Lavigne later was hired, apparently found to be more qualified than any other applicants, at more than $90,000 a year.

Bates resigned as chairman in June but retains his seat on the board. He was replaced by board member Reemsnyder, who resigned last week.

It's a puzzle to me why the governor thinks that allowing the agency's executive director to arrange a secret $3,000 purchase of artwork from your daughter rises to the level of a demand for resignation, while having the executive director hire your unqualified friend as a consultant, for unspecified work, and pay him tens of thousands of dollars does not.

I still don't know why a Providence decorator was chosen as a straw person for a payment to Reemsnyder's daughter. And why did Reemsnyder tell me the payment was $3,000 while the decorator was paid $750 more? Is that what you pay a decorator to decide that the best photographs to hang on the walls are those that were taken by a board member's daughter?

Reemsnyder's assistant, when I called Old Lyme Town Hall on Tuesday, told me the first selectwoman, now a candidate for re-election, was right there and she was putting me through to her line. It went to voicemail, and I left a message. She followed up with a no-comment email.

Libby Slader, the Providence designer, did not return messages.

The only reason I learned about the disguised payment is because I read a news story last week about Comptroller Kevin Lembo putting financial information from quasi-public agencies like the port authority online. Thankfully, at least one politician in Hartford cares about transparency.

I discovered there were no payments in the authority checkbook to any Reemsnyder. The payments to Slader's design company looked suspicious because Reemsnyder had told me a decorator was involved and the amount of money was similar.

What concerns me even more than the scandal at the port authority is the governor's response and his apparent inability to get out in front of it. We still don't know why the executive director was put on paid leave or whether there is a plan for him to return to work.

Reiss assured me Tuesday that "the more (the governor) learns about this, the more frustrated he is becoming."

And Reiss insisted the secret payments to Reemsnyder's daughter all happened before Lamont was governor. Yes, but he's governor now. The pension crisis also was created before he became governor but he owns that, too.

He also told me the governor was concerned that the port authority used a Rhode Island decorator instead of one from Connecticut.

That's a scary response from the governor to this apparent money laundering by a state-funded agency. The problem here was not hiring an out-of-state company instead of a Connecticut one. It was hardly that. Indeed, the bulk of the money went to a relative of a board member of a Connecticut-funded agency.

Maybe the governor believes you should only use Connecticut companies to funnel money to insiders.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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