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Connecticut Port Authority board dined out on the public's dime

I've gotten used to the idea, as sad as it may be, of the pervasive corruption at the Connecticut Port Authority, from hiring unqualified friends and buying art from an insider's daughter, to much worse, enriching the politically connected operator of a privately owned port in New Haven at the expense of the competing public port in New London.

The spending irregularities and lack of financial controls also have become familiar parts of the narrative of the port authority's implosion by scandal.

Still, even I was shocked after opening an email sent to me out of the blue Thursday morning, in response to a Freedom of Information request I made in August, asking for four years of records of the agency's debit or credit cards.

We knew from state auditors that Evan Matthews, the former executive director, was accustomed to elaborate spending, such as a stay at a Mystic hotel when he attended a conference in Darien, an expense lawmakers singled out in questioning him during a recent Transportation Committee hearing.

But the $492 he spent for the two-night stay at the Mystic Hilton, I see now, was a dribble in a vast ocean of excessive spending. The payments from Matthews' debit card, including big bills at dozens of expensive restaurants, from New Haven to Providence, are breathtaking. (You can see them in an attachment to this column on theday.com.)

Most alarming to me was the participation of board members in some of the lavish spending on food and liquor. Not only did no one rein in Matthews during years of excessive spending, but board members, who must have known what was going on, also participated.

The records are sometimes obscured and the explanation for spending is often simply illegible or almost illegible scribbles by Matthews on a receipt.

But it is clear the board threw a posh $2,100 cocktail party for themselves, called a retreat, at the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa, featuring an open bar with premium liquor, artisan cheeses and passed hors d'oeuvres like lobster on endive and broiled scallops. This is the board of a quasi-public agency spending the public's money on luxuries for themselves.

They all should resign.

They spent another $295 for a board meeting after-hours event, also at the Saybrook Inn, according to Matthews' scribbles. Presumably a lot of that was liquor.

The board also treated itself to a $444 lunch in August 2018 at the Griswold Inn in Essex, combined with a board meeting. Maybe that's one in which they were plotting to turn over the public's port of New London to the competing private port operator in New Haven, a deal that still boggles my mind for its egregious undermining of anti-trust principles.

Matthews spent two weeks in Florida for two conferences in the winter of 2019, spending some of the time in luxury hotels costing more than $400 a night.

He once traveled on Amtrak, business class, to go from Old Saybrook to Stamford. He spent money on multi-night stays at in-state hotels in Hartford and Stamford, presumably related to meetings.

I couldn't find the receipts or scribbles to explain an $802 dinner at the Capitol Grille in Hartford.

There are records of expensive staff lunches at Old Saybrook restaurants. The scribbles show Matthews also often ate lunch out on the authority debit card with Andrew Lavigne, who landed a job with the authority paying more than $90,000, despite no relevant experience. Lavigne had formerly worked with Scott Bates, the deputy secretary of the state who micromanaged the port authority as its board chairman, at a Democratic-connected think tank in Washington.

Many of Matthews' expensive meals out, at fine restaurants like Olio in Groton, MBAR in Mystic and the Water Street Café in Stonington, have receipts with scribbles that say "business development."

Some list guest names, such as the Providence decorator who is a friend of his wife's that he hired to remodel the port authority offices at twice the cost of a local estimate. Some list people who would seem to have no reason to be entertained expensively by the port authority, like an executive from Cross Sound Ferry in New London whom Matthews took to MBAR.

Why on earth should the public pay for that?

Some of the meals seem very obviously personal, like the $13.50 he spent on a single breakfast at a joint near his Rhode Island home or the two pizza slices and iced coffee he also bought not far from home. The agency's debit card seemed to be a go-to daily source of money.

Scrolling through these spending receipts was sickening for me.

It is even more galling that Bates, who boldly lied to lawmakers at their last hearing on the port authority, called out and contradicted almost in real time, has not been held accountable for any of the agency's pervasive corruption.

He remains on his perch in Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's safe house, in charge of keeping the state's elections fair and honest.

Shame on her.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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