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Connecticut Port Authority board member voted for pier deal despite conflict of interest

John Johnson, a New London-based real estate investor who is on the board of the Connecticut Port Authority, evidently knew and acknowledged that a 1.8-acre property he owns near State Pier represented a conflict of interest for him participating in port authority planning and decision-making for the pier.

Indeed, Johnson routinely recused himself from discussions and votes regarding the port authority's selection of Gateway Terminals to manage the pier and from subsequent planning to remake the facility into a platform to be used almost exclusively for assembling wind turbines.

But Johnson last summer stopped recusing himself from discussions involving the rebuilding of the pier for offshore wind and was among those who voted unanimously last month to approve a $159 million deal with Eversource and Danish wind giant Ørsted to accommodate the utilities' offshore wind plans.

The plans for rebuilding the pier actually contemplate other purchases of property in the vicinity of the pier, and Johnson's ownership of land there could certainly create an opportunity for him to profit from the deal he voted for.

The 1.8-acre property owned by Johnson's Thames River Properties LLC  has an industrial building on it and is appraised by the city at $1.4 million. Annual taxes are $39,132. It is directly across the street from the now-vacant Crystal Avenue public housing high-rises, which the port authority considered acquiring from the city.

I tracked Johnson down Monday and asked why he stopped recusing himself from State Pier matters. He said he decided that plans for remaking the pier had progressed from discussions to what he called a "fait accompli."

He stopped answering my questions at that point, so I couldn't figure out why he thinks the conflict of his owning property nearby goes away when the deal seems more certain.

Questions about Johnson's conflict, which I posed in emails to Gov. Ned Lamont, who seemed to delight in his news conference announcing the vote on the pier deal that it was unanimous, went unanswered.

I also did not hear anything in response to emails to Port Authority Chairman David Kooris, who served on the board during Johnson's recusals. I asked Kooris directly if he knew why Johnson had recused himself and then stopped. He didn't reply.

Johnson told me he discussed his recusals with Scott Bates, when Bates was chairman of the authority, but not with Kooris. It puzzles me how Kooris would have known about Johnson's prior recusals and not have asked about his subsequent participation in discussions and vote on the final deal.

It is interesting that Kooris allowed a board member to vote on a matter that had led to prominent recusals in the past while the Bates-led authority, now known for giving friends jobs, not keeping financial controls, and for spending run amok, didn't have any self-serving Johnson votes on the pier deals.

Another board member, David Pohorylo, recused himself from votes to appoint a terminal operator in New London even though he had an official opinion it wouldn't violate state ethics policy. He said there was a suggestion his work with terminal operators could create an appearance of a conflict, which is not allowed by port authority bylaws.

Pohorylo did participate in discussions about the $159 million wind deal and voted for it. He told me he did not think that was a conflict, since the port operator already was selected.

Unlike Johnson, Pohorylo went out of his way to obtain an opinion on the matter from the Office of State Ethics.

The Office of Ethics could investigate Johnson's conflict if a complaint is made, and he could face penalties up to $10,000 if it was determined a violation of state ethics policy occurred.

But the deal will stand no matter what happens.

Johnson's obvious conflict and the lack of acknowledgement of it by the governor's port authority seems to be one more ethical shortcoming with a deal, hatched in back rooms, at the behest of expensive Eversource and Ørsted lobbyists, which will close New London to traditional cargo, put longshoreman out of work, displace fishermen, benefit a privately owned port in New Haven and not explicitly compensate New London for hosting a vast commercial enterprise on land it can't tax.

This is Ned Lamont's Connecticut and its dubious respect for ethics.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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