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Lamont's port authority hides the reasons for its huge legal bills

Among the sins of the Connecticut Port Authority cited by state auditors, in reviewing two years of spending by the scandal-ridden agency, was paying expensive lawyers for simple, clerical tasks.

Indeed, the agency spent more than a million dollars over two years on lawyers, often assigning them routine tasks, like preparing a meeting agenda, at the rate of hundreds of dollars an hour.

Apparently, port authority employees were too busy enjoying boozy lunches on the agency's credit card, according to one insider account, to actually do routine work. And why bother, when there were lawyers to be hired at great expense?

Curiously, just before the release of the state auditors' report chastising the agency for excessive legal fees, I received a response from a Freedom of Information request in which I asked to see the port authority's legal bills.

What I got is so heavily redacted, it is useless.

I filed an appeal Wednesday with the Freedom of Information Commission for a review of whether the port authority should be able to legally hide its extensive use of expensive lawyers through the redaction of their bills.

I understand from people who know Freedom of Information law that the agency could reasonably redact and withhold information from the bills that would disclose legal strategy.

You could redact, for instance, a description of what your lawyer charged for if it was to review a particular body of case laws that could reveal some way you planned to argue a disagreement.

But you can't generally hide what work is being charged for, like reviewing correspondence related to a contract.

Clearly, the public has a right to know what kind of legal work it spent more than $1 million on.

And even if the redactions are legally permissible, they are unnecessary and unseemly for an agency that claims to be in reform mode.

Most of the legal fees went to the large Connecticut law firm of Robinson + Cole, which continues to represent the port authority and has handled many scandal-related FOI requests.

That alone begs the question as to whether Robinson + Cole lawyers did the redacting of their own bills.

In either case, it is the new port authority, now being broadly managed by Gov. Ned Lamont and his appointees, which continues to hide the money spent lavishly by the authority when it was run by Scott Bates, the Democratic operative who resigned from the authority but remains deputy secretary of the state.

Bates, who signed off on much of what earned the port authority its F audit grade, has been riding out the scandal in Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's bunker, as the port of New London is almost shut down, lawsuits against the agency start to percolate and a plan to convert State Pier into a wind turbine assembly pad appears stalled.

What little of the port authority's monthly bills from Robinson + Cole remain unredacted gives a clue as to how much was being charged, if not an explanation why.

A lawyer charging $320 an hour, for instance, bills $31 to spend six minutes reading an email. Many hours of the billing are for a lawyer charging $800 an hour. One line item that caught my attention was $5,120 to spend 6.4 hours reading correspondence. Yikes.

In addition to the Robinson + Cole bills, there were also some, totaling tens of thousands of dollars, for the Washington-based law firm that employs former Democratic Connecticut Congressman Toby Moffett.

Do we need to wonder how Moffett's Washington law firm landed a gig for all that Connecticut public money? Those bills are redacted, too, so it's hard to know what they actually did.

Until this spring, according to the auditors, the Robinson + Cole bills did not itemize the rates the lawyers were being paid, so, essentially, the billing for tens of thousands of dollars was undecipherable.

"It was not clear how the (port authority) was able to confirm the accuracy of the (Robinson + Cole) invoices," the auditors wrote.

If it was Robinson + Cole lawyers who redacted their inexplicable bills for my FOI request, I shudder to think how much they charged to do it.

And how much more will it cost Connecticut taxpayers for them to come and defend the efforts to hide what they charged the public so much money for.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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