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Regulators looking at port authority and quasi agencies issue SOS

One of the startling revelations at a meeting Friday of the State Contracting Standards Board, watchdogs for Connecticut procurement and contracts, is that the Connecticut Port Authority paid a venture capital firm more than $700,000 to help hire a management company for State Pier.

Board members seemed a bit slack-jawed on hearing the news that the fees paid by the port authority included more than a $500,000 "reward" for finding someone.

It's even more shocking when you know that the port manager chosen is the owner of the competing port of New Haven, and the deal gave the successful port management bidder a deepwater cargo monopoly.

Other details about questionable procurement practices by the port authority surfaced in initial reports Friday from a committee of board member volunteers that has started a review of the authority's contracts, prompted by complaints.

Another shocker revealed by board members is that some port authority contracts lack penalties for missing key dates and don't lay out any performance standards, a lack of accountability provisions.

Some of the material from the port authority deals the board reviewed was so heavily redacted, members couldn't make out what was being said.

But the contracting board members, after hearing reports on the preliminary review, raised concerns about whether the legislation that created the port authority might preclude them from conducting the kinds of reviews they routinely do of procurement by state agencies.

The board voted unanimously to ask the attorney general to issue a formal opinion about whether they have jurisdiction to carry out their watchdog responsibilities with the port authority.

The board chairman also put out what I would call a plea to state lawmakers to look closely at this issue and the board's ability to also review the work of other quasi-public agencies.

"One of the alarms we need to send to the legislature is whether it is in the public interest to strip the port authority of the kinds of accountability our board can provide," Chairman Lawrence Fox said.

I would add lots of ringing alarms to that plea and hope that lawmakers are paying attention.

Indeed, the legislature is poised to consider some new measures to impose more accountability on the state's quasi-public agencies. Some eastern Connecticut lawmakers have proposed looking at disbanding the port authority altogether and putting its functions back with the state Department of Transportation.

I can promise that the DOT would not have paid a half-million-dollar finders' fee to venture capitalists to help set up a management contract with a Connecticut company.

The contracting standards board, which got high praise for reviewing problems with the deals underlying the Dillon Stadium overhaul in Hartford, needs lawmakers' help as it tries to take on the important task of reviewing the lack of accountability and transparency with other quasi-public agencies.

I've had a chance to check in on some of their meetings, and Connecticut taxpayers should be grateful that this group of volunteers on the board seems to take its responsibilities so seriously.

It is clear they need staff assistance, especially a lawyer, to help them get the job done.

It's commendable that they are doing so much of their work on a volunteer basis, working in committees, but that's not right.

The volunteer board should be able to oversee the work of a staff, and legislators need to come to the rescue of this crucial watchdog.

The board's work seems especially important with regard to its review of the port authority, since Attorney General William Tong has shown no interest in looking at the corruption at the agency and its creation of business monopolies.

I can't help but think it's because it was mismanaged by prominent Democrats, including, most recently, the chairwoman of the party, who seems to have no knowledge of ports but stayed a long time on the board anyway, as it made questionable deals.

Legislators like to talk a big game about reforming the quasis.

They ought to perk up and listen to a distress call from a group already down in the trenches trying hard with limited resources to get the job done.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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