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Mystic Aquarium president was paid $563,000 in 2019

Since Mystic Aquarium President Stephen Coan has participated in some prominent public forums recently, speaking at a chamber event featuring Gov. Ned Lamont and testifying in support of Lamont's State Pier project, I have heard some grumblings from readers about the amount of money he is paid.

After poking around a bit, I did learn it is quite an eyebrow-raising compensation package, putting him squarely in the top tier of big wage earners in eastern Connecticut.

Coan was paid $563,562 in total form 1099 income in 2019, according to the aquarium's latest publicly available tax return, including a $143,000 bonus. The total of Coan's 1099 reportable income was $433,913 in 2018 and $485,957 in 2017, according to the tax returns.

I suppose this is generally none of anyone's business, except for the donors to the nonprofit that runs the aquarium.

However, the state's financial rescue of the aquarium last fall — no one with the aquarium or Lamont administration seems to like the word bailout — does raise some questions about public money being used to support a struggling institution that pays its president so generously.

I did learn this week, in looking at the state rescue package — a Lamont news release said when it was announced last fall that it was meant to assist the aquarium to "continue operations" — that Lamont's help was quite generous.

The public description of the rescue was called a public/private collaboration, with the state providing a $7 million line-of-credit loan. The aquarium also impressively raised more than $10 million from private donors, it said at the time, and some of its commercial lenders forgave debt.

The state also forgave the balance of a 2013 loan for $3 million, essentially a gift of $2.6 million.

That's a lot of money used to help continue operations of a nonprofit that just the year before paid its president $563,000.

Right into this week, the Lamont administration has continued to hide some details of the deal. When I asked for a copy of the loan agreement, it came back with redactions over the sections that laid out employment requirements for the aquarium to meet in regard to the pay of full-time employees and the penalty due if the employment threshold is not met.

When I complained, a spokesman for the state Department of Economic Community Development said the redactions were allowed under Freedom of Information laws protecting trade secrets and privileged information given in confidence.

This is a laughable interpretation of FOI law, suggesting that the terms of a loan agreement requiring employment at a minimum pay level is some kind of a trade secret.

Koray Gurz, aquarium chief financial officer, told me he didn't want to explain the employee pay requirements or penalties spelled out in the agreement if the state would not. He said the aquarium is currently meeting the employment requirements and expects to continue to.

Gurz and board Chairman George Milne, in a written statement, both defended Coan's pay and said it is based on a recommendation by a compensation committee of the board and developed with consultants. They said it was in the mid-range of what heads of similar institutions are paid.

Gurz said Coan worked for several months without pay at the beginning of the pandemic and that he has personally donated $250,000 to the institution he heads over the last three years.

Milne said the bonus in 2019 was deferred compensation from Coan's 18 years of employment at the aquarium and was paid in a lump sum that year for accounting purposes.

I couldn't find any studies on executive pay for aquariums but I did learn that the head of the New England Aquarium in Boston had a total of $462,000 in 1099 income in 2019 and the head of the National Aquarium in Baltimore had $420,000 in that year.

They are big institutions in large metropolitan areas and I'm sure they were also in distress during the pandemic.

In his statement, Milne praised Coan and his leadership team for putting the aquarium in stronger financial condition than it was a year ago.

"We are very excited about the future of Mystic Aquarium and appreciate and value Dr. Coan's leadership," Milne wrote.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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