Lamont's port authority strategy: muzzles and myth

On the morning of July 24, as the Connecticut Port Authority began to publicly melt down, David Kooris, Gov. Ned Lamont's designated scandal manager, answered questions from the news media with a lawyer whispering in his ear.

Kooris, the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development who was appointed interim port authority chairman that day, didn't answer a question about the firing of the port authority office manager until after much lawyer whispering, and would only agree to call it a separation, not a firing.

Seven weeks later, Gerri Lewis, the office manager, and her lawyer not only contradicted Kooris' characterization of her "separation" before the media that morning but also the interim chairman's August testimony before the legislature's Transportation Committee, in which he said she "negotiated her separation" and left on July 9.

Instead, Lewis and her lawyer said, in early September, port authority lawyers from the same firm as the lawyer whisperer who helped Kooris answer Lewis questions July 24, continued to negotiate a severance deal for her firing, with a $5,000 offer not to talk to the media, well into August and long past the time Kooris took over the authority. She turned down the hush money from the Lamont-directed port authority.

That hush money offered Lewis was just one of the screws deployed to try to keep the lid on the port authority scandals, as Kooris attempts to use the crippled, scandal-ridden agency to finalize a deal to close the port of New London to traditional cargo and turn it over to a Danish wind company to assemble foreign-made turbines.

Kooris himself pointed out the obvious incongruity in this strategy, telling a chamber breakfast this week it's like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time. Another high-ranking state official put it even more succinctly, saying you have to keep sailing the ship even as it sinks.

The hush money offered Lewis reminds me of the nondisclosure agreements forced on union longshoreman by Gateway Terminal, more muzzles, after the port operator took over New London in May and immediately began diverting cargo to the non-union terminal it owns in New Haven.

Gateway, represented by lobbyist Jay Malcynsky's influential Hartford firm, which also represents wind partners Ørsted and Eversource, was chosen by the port authority to manage New London, over longtime operator Logistec, which runs cargo ports, including ones that handle wind turbine parts, throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Logistec officials still won't answer questions about why Gateway was selected over them because they had to sign a nondisclosure agreement about the bid process.

If they could talk about it, they would explain how their bid included a plan to build a new floating wind-staging pier that would accommodate the turbine assembly while keeping the port open to other cargo, competing with New Haven.

Frank Vanelli, Logistec senior vice president for business development, did agree this week to chat about other matters and he quickly dispelled the myth that Kooris has been promoting, that the port of New London was withering before the wind deal came along. Kooris told lawmakers it was "an underperforming break-bulk cargo facility."

On the contrary, Vanelli told me, a wide variety of cargo was coming in to New London, and the total number of ships and tonnage continued to grow right until the New Haven operator took over.

Logistec had a record year in 2018 in New London, with 33 ships making port calls with some 400,000 tons of cargo. They were well on their way to breaking new records in 2019, before Gateway took over.

Gateway and Kooris have not responded to requests for New London port calls since Gateway took over, but one longshoreman, ripping off his nondisclosure muzzle, said the port essentially has shut down. Vanelli said they have helped some shipping customers who used to use them in New London find other ports, including Providence and in Massachusetts.

Part of Logistec's growth curve in New London over nine years, Vanelli said, included luring steel shipments from New Haven. Those ships are now going back to New Haven, the longshoreman, a Groton resident who is now mostly out of pier work, told me.

Port authority critic Kevin Blacker sent me a citizen complaint he filed Thursday with the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, saying the port authority award to Gateway eliminates actual and potential competition in Connecticut for import and export of conventional cargo like salt, lumber and steel. He has a good point.

It's a sad commentary on the state of Connecticut politics that lawmakers refuse to look into the swampy corruption of an agency that not only rewarded friends and family with sweet no-competition deals but signed an agreement giving control of its valuable port asset to a competing operator, one politically connected with a leading lobbyist. I would suggest that Malcynsky is standing on the necks of lawmakers from both parties.

Then, almost on cue, that operator began to shut down the state's port in New London, moving cargo to their own competing terminal, where they pay fewer fees and lower, non-union wages.

This, apparently, is Ned Lamont's Connecticut.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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