Denise Merrill stonewalls FOI request for Bates spending

Gerri Lewis, the fired office manager of the Connecticut Port Authority, in describing the profound personal enrichment at taxpayer expense that took place at the agency, made it clear that Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of the state, was firmly in charge of the swamp.

"Mr. Bates essentially ran the authority," Lewis wrote in a letter that was recently made public. She says she turned down a $5,000 offer to sign a hush deal prohibiting comments to the media, in severance negotiations that her lawyer says continued well into August, long after Gov. Ned Lamont began to direct management of the authority.

"For the most part Mr. (Evan Matthews, the authority executive director) did not make any decisions; Instead he took his direction from Mr. Bates," Lewis wrote, noting that an associate of Bates, Andrew Lavigne, hired for $94,000 a year, despite no relevant experience, was the gatekeeper for Bates when he was authority chairman.

"If anyone needed to have contact with Mr. Bates from the office they had to go through Mr. Lavigne," Lewis wrote, adding that Lavigne and Matthews "had many lunches, dinners and drinks" paid for with the authority credit card, with the explanation of holding "business development" meetings.

Bates, after consultation with the governor, resigned from the authority board after the first wave of scandals at the port authority. But his $149,000-a-year, full-time job appears quite safe, with Secretary of the State Denise Merrill singing his praises whenever asked.

Merrill also is stonewalling a Freedom of Information request I made in early August for records of spending decisions made by the deputy secretary of the state. I filed a complaint Friday with the state Freedom of Information Commission.

I eventually broadened my FOI request for all his spending authorizations after a Merrill spokesperson, in response to questions about Bates' travel on behalf of the office, like a national convention of secretaries of states, told me the deputy secretary of the state has never submitted expense reimbursement requests or used an agency credit card.

It seems unlikely to me he would conduct office business on his own travel dime. Maybe if the secretary of the state would comply with FOI laws, we'd know for sure.

For a little recap of the Bates decision-making at the port authority, we now know he used his influence to set up a special committee that hired his associate's communications firm for $6,500 a month in consulting fees, giving it a leg up over a more qualified local firm. He also signed off on expensive office renovations by a Rhode Island designer who is a friend of Matthews' wife.

Bates also agreed to the $3,200 purchase of photographs by the daughter of authority board member Bonnie Reemsnyder, a deal that prompted the governor to call for her resignation.

The biggest deal signed under Bates' port authority gave management of the port of New London to a competitor, the company that owns and manages New Haven's port facilities. Shipping insiders tell me traditional cargo shipments already are being diverted from New London to New Haven.

David Kooris, current chair of the authority board and deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, did not respond to an email seeking statistics on ship visits to New London. When the Department of Transportation ran the port, this information was readily available. The Day used to regularly publish it.

I guess I could put in one more Freedom of Information request, which the authority can deny and fight with its expensive lawyers.

It will be interesting to see, as my FOI complaint against the secretary of the state winds through the review process before the commission, if Merrill will continue to choose to practice the strategy of secrecy and stonewalling that Bates' scandal-ridden port authority refined.

Gov. Lamont's administration is on the learning curve, with an attempted $5,000 hush payment.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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