Legislators need to uncover Lamont port authority whitewash

Gov. Ned Lamont, incredibly, issued a press release Aug. 9. promising to "prioritize" the wind deal that would remake the port of New London, pledging  "timely review and execution," even though the agency that launched the deal is mired in corruption.

The governor, in his Aug. 9 announcement, acknowledged the crisis at the Connecticut Port Authority and ordered that all its work, except for the prioritized wind deal, cease while a review of its finances and management takes place.

This is absurd. The building is on fire and everyone should get out. You can't try to cherry-pick anything to rescue from the inferno. Every deal, final or not, needs beginning-to-end scrutiny, not a rush to signing.

We already know some of the rampant corruption that occurred at the port authority while it was run by Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates, from Bates hiring his own associates, including one for what appears to be a no-work $6,500-a-month contract, to hiring a pal of the director's wife, buying a board member's daughter's artwork and offering a consulting gig to silence an authority critic.

But there's more which Lamont knows that he's not disclosing, even as he promises more transparency.

The governor and his lieutenants must know much of what was going behind the cascade of events that began with Bates' first resignation, as board chairman, in June, and ending with the resignation of his board seat earlier this month, and they are not telling the public.

The legislature, which plans a forum on the port authority Tuesday, needs to get to the bottom of the Lamont whitewash of the broken port authority. The agenda for the forum, which will not include any questioning of the deputy secretary of the state or others implicated in the scandals, doesn't appear to even to begin to explore the dysfunction of the agency.

The agency whitewash includes a refusal by interim chairman David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, Lamont's pick to head the troubled agency, to explain why the office manager, ironically the state's designated ethics compliance officer, was fired or why Executive Director Evan Matthews was placed on paid leave.

Kooris has not responded to a Freedom of Information request I made on July 25 seeking paperwork related to the explosive job actions. There's nothing in Freedom of Information laws to protect personnel matters — they are employees paid with public money — and since the governor's allies won't give up these public documents, perhaps a big explainer of what's been going on, legislators should demand them.

Legislators should also steer the discussion about remaking New London's port out into the open, since the public deserves the right to scrutinize plans to close the city's port to traditional cargo and close rail links only recently restored with $8 million in federal funding.

This rich wind deal, which the governor wants to prioritize, as the rest of the port authority burns, needs to be aired publicly with a full explanation of the costs, revenue, potential job creation and reasons for closing New London's valuable port. Let's hear exactly what's being proposed.

The wind deal hinges on a previous deal made by the corrupt port authority, naming the company that runs the New Haven port to operate New London's port. Authority critic Kevin Blacker likens this to giving the Yankees control of Fenway Park.

The governor has ordered Kooris to hire an "independent" firm to audit the agency's finances and management, but if this firm is hired by the agency it is examining, what's independent in that?

Republicans have already complained about Tuesday's hearing, organized by the Democrat chairs, since the committee didn't demand appearances by Bates and others who could have explained their tenure at the authority.

"It's essential for government transparency that they attend and be available to answer questions," Republicans wrote to Democrats Aug. 9. They say they never heard back, and have scheduled a press conference prior to Tuesday's hearing.

Let's hope Democrats in the General Assembly figure out they need to reject the Lamont port authority whitewash and get down to work. There should be bipartisan outrage.

 

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

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