How Scott Bates steered $78,000 from the port authority to an associate

A quick look at two proposals for marketing and communications work submitted to the Connecticut Port Authority in 2017, responses to a formal request for bids, reveals a clear winner to any unbiased observer, someone without a horse in the race.

One was from Quinn & Hary, a media relations powerhouse with storefront offices and staff in New London, a subsidiary of Regan Communications Group, the largest privately held public relations and communications firm in New England.

The Quinn & Hary proposal was long, thorough, professional and specific, including work samples done for local clients, a description of its full media relations and creative staff and laudatory recommendations from customers, including the mayor of New London and the chief executive officer of a local bank.

The other proposal came from a firm largely unknown in Connecticut, Dealy Mahler Strategies, which lists two principals, Loren Dealy Mahler and New York City-based Elie Jacobs. Both Mahler and Jacobs have resumes that cite some of the same Washington, D.C., organizations as Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of the state who stepped down as port authority chairman in June but, until his resignation was announced by Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday, kept his board seat.

Bates hired Dealy Mahler's firm in 2016 for a study on the state's defense work, when he ran the Connecticut Institute for the 21st Century for a short period.

The Dealy Mahler proposal, which was awarded the bulk of the port authority communications contract, is thin and vague and full of airy rhetoric, in sharp contrast to the specificity in the Quinn & Hary bid. Two clients cited in an experience category are only generically described, not identified. The firm's website has no phone number or physical address. I couldn't help but think it might be run from a bedroom of some New York City apartment.

But don't take it from me. If you are reading this online, you can follow along with the story, documented in emails — including the Dealy Mahler and Quinn & Hary bids — which explain how Dealy Mahler, with intervention by then Chairman Bates, won out over a local Connecticut firm, finally landing a contract worth $78,000.

The emails and proposals are posted in a file along with this column on theday.com. The Dealy Mahler bid starts on page 4, and the one from Quinn & Hary starts on page 44.

The Dealy Mahler contract calls for the firm to subcontract media relations work to McDowell Jewett Communications, the Connecticut firm that did public relations for the governor's election campaign.

The way the port authority contract is written it's impossible to know, from public documents, how much of the $6,500 a month the port authority was paying Dealy Mahler went to the firm that eventually went to work for the governor's campaign.

The emails that explain how Bates steered such a big contract to his associates came to me by way of a Freedom of Information Act request made July 3 by Kevin Blacker, the citizen critic who port authority Executive Director Evan Matthews once offered a consulting contract before finally threatening him with a police investigation.

The port authority stalled on Blacker's request for emails relating to the Dealy Mahler contract all through July and finally complied Tuesday, following a complaint about timeliness he filed with the state Freedom of Information Commission.

It was Bates who first introduced Mahler to Matthews by email (pg. 29), before she ever saw the authority's official request for communication proposals.

"We are thinking through how to meet our communications needs and know you could have some good thoughts on this — and indeed I'd be interested in seeing how we might work together," Bates wrote to Mahler on Aug. 25, copying Matthews.

Bates uses his personal gmail account, not his email accounts for the port authority or secretary of the state's office, and his emails about Mahler appear in the Freedom of Information release only because of copies of them kept by Matthews and others.

The request for proposals generated submissions from Mahler and Quinn & Hary by the Sept. 15 deadline, and Bates asks for copies (page 40) of the two bids on Oct. 17. And yet on Sept. 17 (page 68), a full month earlier, apparently without seeing the bids, he suggests the work be split between the two firms.

It was eventually split, with Mahler's firm getting $6,500 a month and Quinn & Harry, which pleaded that the work should be kept "under one roof," getting only $3,500.

"Here's a thought — we could use both of them," Bates wrote to Matthews Sept. 17. "I'll go through the proposals and see if we might be able to pull it off. She would be a great face for the CPA with reporters while Quinn/Hary could provide her/us infrastructure. So yea, let's vote on this Oct. 4."

If this email doesn't make a full mockery of the bid process, with the board chairman suggesting a vote on proposals he hasn't even seen, consider the one he sent soon after, setting up a subcommittee of four to come up with the decision on the communications contracts that he already had made.

"I'd like a two-step process with this one. If we could have an Ad-hoc Subcommittee, assembled just for this RFP selection," he wrote Oct. 10 (page 45,) suggesting three other board members join him on the new subcommittee.

"There are two takers, and I think the choice will be fairly clear," he wrote, a full week before he actually asked to have the proposals sent for his review.

At the outset of the process, Bates wrote Matthews that the port authority budget was about $1 million (page 37) and the communications contract should be a "large part" of what's spent on marketing Connecticut ports.

Despite Bates' prediction that Mahler would become the "face" of the port authority for reporters, I can speak for a lot of us that, even now, I couldn't pick her out in a lineup. I searched emails that public relations agencies sent to The Day and could not find a single one from either Mahler or her subcontractor, McDowell Jewett, on behalf of the authority.

It makes you wonder what that $6,500 a month was spent on.

Duby McDowell, McDowell Jewett president, did make a frantic call to the newsroom when I first reported Blacker's concerns about Dealy Mahler's link to Bates, sounding that night like a press agent for Bates as much as the port authority.

Gov. Lamont, who said Friday he is prioritizing the Bates-crafted wind deal that would enrich the port authority and close the New London port to all traditional cargo for the better part of 20 years, praised the deputy secretary of the state while announcing his resignation from the authority board Friday.

The port authority interim chairman, David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, announced matter-of-factly at this week's authority board meeting that Mahler was resigning because the monthly payments to her are not guaranteed. If this were a movie, I would have cued up the sound of distant police sirens, on their way, as the dash for the exits began.

Bates' other boss, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, also praised Bates when I asked, saying she had no problem with the fact that her deputy, also charged with assuring safe and fair elections, attended or organized Lamont campaign events, including one at his Stonington Borough home.

It makes me very disappointed, in a time of a Trump-crazed Connecticut Republican party, with the state's Democratic establishment.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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