Port authority hired friend of director's wife for renovations
In the summer of 2017, preparing to move into new offices in Old Saybrook, the Connecticut Port Authority rejected a $23,068 furnishings bid by a Groton interior designer and instead hired a Rhode Island designer who is a friend of Executive Director Evan Matthews' wife.
The project, headed up by designer Libby Slader of Providence, friends on social media with Kristin Matthews, Evan Matthews' wife, ended up costing over $49,000 — more than double the price quoted by a Groton designer for furniture, art, carpets and blinds. (The quote by the Groton designer appears on Page 3 of the PDF attached below.)
The port authority also ended up paying an $878.75 invoice (Page 11) from the Groton designer, Georgann Ritter, who spent time organizing the project thinking she had been hired, before the work was given to Slader.
The decision to pick Slader over Ritter was made by Matthews, who explained the decision to Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, then a port authority board member, who also served as head of the Finance Committee and approved most of the invoices for the more expensive Rhode Island-based project.
"Here is George Ann budget. It's already designed?" Matthews wrote to Reemsnyder on July 21, 2017, (Page 3). "I am going to go with Libby because she will let us see the office before we buy anything."
The Slader project eventually included buying mounted photographs from Reemsnyder's daughter, although Reemsnyder recused herself from that authorization, which was made by Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of the state who was then chairman of the port authority.
The issue of using an out-of-state vendor for the renovations came up nine days earlier, at a meeting of the board's Finance Committee chaired by Reemsnyder and attended by Bates.
Member John Johnson of New London suggested at the July 12 meeting, according to the minutes, that the office design work should go to a Connecticut firm. A port authority staff member noted that three state-approved Connecticut vendors already had looked at the space to provide price quotes. The state-approved vendors all had quotes for the furniture of less than $15,000.
The minutes go on to note that Matthews "has the purview to retain any qualified firm that he sees fit" and had worked with Slader in the past.
There was nothing in the minutes to indicate Chairman Bates weighed in on whether an out-of-state firm should be hired. The minutes indicate that Kristin Matthews was strangely in attendance at the agency's Finance Committee meeting in which her friend's proposal was introduced.
Bates did later intervene, according to emails released through a Freedom of Information request, when the budget for the Rhode Island furniture company hired by Slader topped $39,000, considerably more than the entire furniture, carpet, art and blinds budget by Ritter of Groton. Bates approved the large amount, more than three times the cost of the cheapest Connecticut state-approved vendor.
"Chairman good to go!!" Matthews wrote (Page 26) to the Rhode Island furniture vendor Aug. 18, greenlighting the full furniture budget of $39,537.
Of course why would Chairman Bates object to the executive director spending tens of thousands of dollars more to hire a friend of his wife, from Rhode Island, when he had used his influence to hire one associate on a no-bid $50-an-hour consulting contract and agreed to pay $6,500 a month to another for media and press services, even though there is little evidence of much work done by that person.
Reemsnyder, who practically was kicked to the curb by the governor the moment news broke that the port authority had bought her daughter's photographs, said in emails Tuesday, in response to my questions about Slader, that she was not very involved in the project.
"When he (Matthews) sent the follow up email (about hiring Slader) I simply agreed, as he was now in charge of getting the office prepared," she wrote.
While Reemsnyder got a terse demand for her resignation from Gov. Ned Lamont, Bates got only praise from the governor when his resignation from the port authority was finally offered, weeks after the scandals broke.
Bates's big boss, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, also only has praised her deputy, as the depth of the corruption at the port authority he led comes into clearer focus.
I salute Kevin Blacker, who on Tuesday submitted a citizen complaint about the port authority to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut. It does seem like a criminal probe is in order. Many tens of thousands of dollars were paid to friends of port authority officials, with no or questionable bidding tactics.
I'm puzzled why Matthews is still on paid leave and hasn't been fired. Let's hope the General Assembly's Transportation Committee calls him as a witness when it convenes hearings later this month on the troubled port authority.
If the choosing of the office designer and public relations consultant were so unseemly, imagine how the contracts involving many tens of millions of dollars for the leasing of the New London port have been handled.
"Please send help," Blacker wrote Tuesday to U.S. Attorney John H. Durham.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
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