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Connecticut Port Authority redacts email comments on governor's office meeting

Here we are, some seven months since the Connecticut Port Authority began its meltdown into scandal, and expensive authority lawyers are still spinning the billing meter in Freedom of Information fights over documents that might reveal more of what happened.

In my last hearing before the state Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, the port authority's prominent statewide law firm, Robinson + Cole, sent not one or two but three lawyers to argue against disclosure of their bills to the agency, some $1 million paid by Connecticut taxpayers.

They were ordered by the commission's hearing officer to give legal justification for each of the substantial redactions across hundreds of pages of bills. I can't imagine how much it will eventually cost taxpayers for the lawyers to continue to try to hide their bills from the public.

This Wednesday, the lawyers will try to complete their legal somersaults to hide internal port authority emails discussing the departure of former Executive Director Evan Matthews, who was put on paid leave in July, with no public explanation offered for his sudden departure.

The full commission is expected to make a final decision Wednesday on my request to see emails from and to their public relations consultant.

At the time of the first session before a hearing officer, the port authority agreed it had not complied or provided any response. The full commission then considered an order requiring full compliance without redactions, but recessed the decision until its meeting next week.

The lawyers since have been sending literally thousands of pages of email, much of it repetitive copies of long reports. But some of it is also redacted personal email, including a series of specific emails that ricocheted around after I reported on July 17 that the executive director had inexplicably gone missing.

One of these emails, including port authority officials, several lawyers and public relations consultants, had the subject line "Governor's Office Meeting." It was part of a batch of redacted emails that also included copies of my column about Matthews leaving.

I hope to ask the commission to order these redactions removed, since there is no obvious exemption from FOI law about what you say to your press consultants about an agency director placed on leave or certainly what they say back to you.

Besides, the authority lawyers, if they wanted to claim an exemption, should have produced the emails they eventually redacted in the many months that passed between the time of my request and the official hearing on my complaint that they hadn't complied.

The time for claiming exemption of comments with press consultants about how to spin the unexplained leave of the executive director, possibly hatched in a meeting in the governor's office, has long passed.

More interesting, the newly produced redacted emails at the time of Matthews' departure should have been disclosed but weren't in a prior case before the commission in which I asked for "all records ... written and in email" among port authority employees and board members pertaining to Matthews' job status.

Indeed, port authority staff member Andrew Lavigne, who was even included in the chain of redacted emails sent at the time of Matthews' departure, did not produce them, despite a signed affidavit in which he swore to having provided all responsive material.

I'd like to ask the commission to reopen that case, too.

What might the governor's role have been in the decision to remove Matthews or what might have been the discussion about how to spin it, as the push was on to do the deal to remake State Pier?

Maybe there's an answer under those redactions. Here's hoping the commission lets us see it.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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