Bates approved port authority purchase of Reemsnyder photos

The day after I first reported that the Connecticut Port Authority purchased photographs to decorate its offices from the daughter of Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, then chairwoman of the agency, Gov. Ned Lamont demanded her resignation.

Reemsnyder, a member of the board of the agency since its inception, succeeded Scott Bates of Stonington, deputy secretary of the state, as chair after he resigned that post in June, keeping his board seat.

I learned this week, after sifting through hundreds of pages of emails and documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information request, that the authority's purchase of the photos was approved in 2017 by Bates, who knew then the money was going to Reemsnyder's daughter.

Will the governor demand Bates' resignation, too? Isn't approving a payment to a board member's daughter as ethically suspect as knowing a payment went to your own daughter?

Will the fact that Bates hosted a campaign event at his Stonington Borough home for the governor or his wife's role in the Lamont administration be a factor in his continuing to be spared one of the governor's hair-trigger resignation demands?

You would think that the governor would want to be done with him, as we continue to learn how deep the swamp at Bates' port authority was, so badly mismanaged it essentially has suspended its work, staff members have been inexplicably fired or put on leave, while the governor's office investigates and a whistleblower complaint of misuse of funds is reviewed by auditors.

"Scott — please find the purchase request for Erin Reemsnyder coastal prints that will cover the walls of the new office," Evan Matthews, the port authority director who has been inexplicably placed on paid leave, wrote to then board Chairman Bates at 2 p.m. Aug. 25, 2017. "We need you or someone else on the finance committee to approve this purchase since Bonnie has recused from this transaction because Erin is Bonnie's daughter."

"I chose the photos with our designer Libby Slader to exclude Bonnie from the decision making."

At 8:53 that night, Bates wrote back: "If you approve this to advance the image of CPA and our marketing mission, I concur."

If friends or relatives profit a bit by advancing the marketing mission, maybe with thousands of dollars worth of superfluous office art, so be it, he might have added.

Bates arranging the hiring of his associates, one on a no-bid $50-an-hour contract, didn't trigger a demand by the governor for his resignation. I suspect approving a contract payment for a board member's daughter won't, either.

Adding to the unethical nature of the photo purchases, Matthews instructs in an email that Reemsnyder's daughter's photos should not be called "art" in her invoices. Indeed, she calls them "wall furnishings."

Emails between Matthews, the interior designer working on the office furnishing and Reemsnyder indicate the first idea for wall decorations, before the Reemsnyder photos were selected, was to use photo images already owned by the port authority and have them mounted to hang. That certainly would have saved money.

One thing that became clear to me, in reading hundreds of pages, months' worth, about the port authority move to a new office suite in Old Saybrook — deliberation of a lounge chair versus a sofa in the director's office, colors coordinated with the port authority logo — it's hard to imagine how they could organize a $93 million remake of State Pier, let alone go toe to toe in negotiations with an international conglomerate that measures profits in the billions.

Reemsnyder told me the port authority paid $3,000 for her daughter's photos. The invoice is actually for $3,250, although I don't think the first selectwoman was misleading me about the price so much as rounding off or misremembering. Indeed, she did recuse herself from signing the payment documentation.

None of the turmoil at the mismanaged and scandal-ridden port authority has shaken Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's confidence in Bates as her deputy.

"Scott is a crucial member of my staff who I have given the most important tasks to," she said in a statement issued after I asked whether Bates' support of Lamont was a conflict with her office's supervision of state elections. I saw him at a New London campaign event in the middle of a business day, far from the secretary of the state's offices.

"My staff doesn't give up their right to participate in a democracy when they opt for a career in public service. We need more people getting involved with the civic life of their community, not less," she wrote.

I guess Merrill has never heard of the Hatch Act, which, at the federal level, limits political participation for people paid with federal money, to keep elections clean. But it only applies in Connecticut to people paid on federal payroll or grants.

Here in swampy old Connecticut, where an establishment run by Democrats seems to be fine with jobs and contracts for family and pals, you can conduct all the partisan political maneuvering you like, even if you are paid by an office charged with insuring fair and independent elections.

Isn't that like umpiring a game in which your kid is the pitcher?

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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