Port authority offered hush money

The wild account of financial mismanagement and corruption at the Connecticut Port Authority made this week by the agency's fired office manager would make any reasonable person slam the brakes on the whole enterprise.

Instead, Gov. Ned Lamont's choice to lead the scandal-ridden agency to a $93 million wind deal remaking New London's port hit the accelerator and tried to put a lid on the steaming cauldron of alleged personal enrichment at taxpayer expense.

Part of that hide-and-conceal strategy included a $5,000 offer to the fired office manager, Gerri Lewis, in exchange for her signing an agreement not to talk to the news media or anyone "reasonably calculated to lead to involvement or communication by the press or media."

This hush deal offered by an attorney for Robinson & Cole, the prestigious law firm that had already billed the port authority $246,258 in year-to-date billing by May, was part of severance negotiations with Lewis' lawyer that continued well after David Kooris, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, was named chairman of the port authority.

"They were quite clear (in the severance negotiations) they were focused on her not talking to anyone about anything," Lewis' attorney, Thomas Riley, told me Thursday. His client refused to sign.

While she was offered $5,000, the hush deal would seem to violate the spirit if not the letter of a new law preventing nondisparagement agreements for Connecticut's quasi-public agencies because of past abuses. The law says there can be no deals for $50,000 or more.

"Tuesday, July 9, the executive director (of the port authority) and the office manager negotiated her separation," Kooris testified in August, during a whitewash hearing on the port authority staged by Democrats.

Kooris' characterization of Lewis's firing in his August testimony before legislators was not true, Riley said.

In fact, employees have 21 days to consider separation agreements, and his negotiations with Robinson & Cole continued past July 24, Riley said. Kooris was named chairman July 24.

Not only did Kooris mischaracterize Lewis' firing, according to Riley, but he went on to suggest he and the governor were keen on complying with the law preventing separation agreements for the quasi-public agencies.

"The authority is well aware of the limitations set forth by the legislature  ... and the governor's opposition to same," Kooris told legislators that day.

I guess we can now interpret that as meaning hush deals are fine, as long as you don't exceed the $50,000 threshold set by law.

What is so sad about the Lewis revelations is that not only was she apparently fired without good cause — I believe her account — with the subsequent damage to her reputation, but Evan Matthews, the executive director, has continued to collect a paycheck all this time, while on an administrative leave that Kooris has characterized as disciplinary in nature, with severance talks underway.

Given the hush money deal offered to Lewis, the continuing payments to the sidelined executive director seem to be of the same order. Pretty soon, the paychecks for no work will start to approach the legislature's $50,000 threshold.

Out here in the real world, people who commit fireable offenses get fired.

Certainly the account by Lewis of the chaos at the port authority, with no financial controls and an employee in charge of accounting who didn't know how to run accounting software, would seem ample grounds to fire the person in charge.

Hiring unqualified friends with inflated contracts and the executive director maxing out a $1,500 daily limit for the authority debit card, mainly on food and drinks, are apparently allegations the governor and his new lieutenant at the port authority wanted to keep the lid on.

I hear a of lot of insincerity in the Kooris pledges of new transparency as the port authority continues to deny Freedom of Information Act requests. They even refused to release a copy of the signed agreement establishing negotiations for a deal to transform the port of New London.

I am confident the Freedom of Information Commission ultimately will order the release of much of what's been requested, perhaps long after the governor gets his wind deal and after many more billable hours by Robinson & Cole — lawyering against transparency — which we see can quickly add up to hundreds of thousands of public dollars.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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