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    Monday, December 11, 2023

    Who at the Connecticut Port Authority took unethical gifts?

    The corruption at the Connecticut Port Authority, still busy completing its cost-spiraling $255.5 million remake of New London's State Pier, on behalf of rich utilities, seems bottomless.

    Of course, the massive spending at the pier, as it continues unabated, is the subject of a continuing, wide-ranging federal probe of many enormous construction projects that were overseen at the top levels of the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont.

    Regarding the port authority, Attorney General William Tong says he is also continuing to investigate a controversial granting in 2020 of a $523,000 success fee to a marine consulting firm, Seabury PFRA, for its role in choosing the politically connected operators of the port of New Haven to run the competing New London port.

    A Seabury employee served on the port authority board of directors until shortly before the rich contract to his firm was awarded.

    "The investigation is active and ongoing, involving, among other things, witness interviews, serving of subpoenas, and review of over 40,000 documents," a spokesperson for Tong wrote Wednesday, after I asked about the probe, which the attorney general first acknowledged in February 2021.

    Seabury was also the subject of an announcement Tuesday by the Office of State Ethics, which said the consultants have agreed to pay $10,000 in fines for violation of ethics codes involving gifts to two port authority employees and a board member of the quasi-public agency.

    The gifts were made in 2017 and 2019, a period in which, audits have shown, spending at the agency was out of control, not even properly recorded, with lavish expense accounts and payments made to insiders without competitive bidding.

    Two former chairpersons of the board, former Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder and Scott Bates, deputy secretary of the state, were both asked by the governor to resign from the authority board as a result of the disclosures.

    It was encouraging to see the Office of State Ethics announce enforcement action this week against Seabury for the unethical payments that might best be described as bribes, however petty, lavish outings with meals and accommodations given by a company courting state business.

    Alas, the office did not disclose who the bribes were made to. And the port authority was all mum this week on who might have taken them, continuing a culture of coverups at the agency.

    I'll have to take Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, at his word, after he told me the office's policies, based on confidentiality provisions of the law, preclude him from identifying who at the port authority the gifts were made to.

    He said he could not confirm or deny whether there are other investigations underway pertaining to the same issues, though he said the law the consent order with Seabury is based on would include both recipients as well as donors of unethical gifts.

    But certainly the port authority itself could investigate who at the agency took bribes from Seabury and take some kind of enforcement action of its own. After all, we know the dates and locations of the expensive outings.

    I tried to reach Ulysses Hammond, the retired Connecticut College executive who was recently named director of the port authority, to ask what kind of investigation into the bribes the agency is conducting. He wouldn't talk to me on the phone.

    "The public should know this is not a report about the current port authority," Hammond wrote to me in an email in which he said employees and board members now receive ethics training.

    So how hard would it be to pick up the phone, answer a few questions, and assure the public that whoever took the bribes outlined in the ethics complaint no longer work for the agency.

    He did not answer that very specific question, about whether they still work there, when I directly asked him by email.

    "We are not in a position to comment on any information that has not been provided by the state Office of Ethics," he wrote back at the end of the day. 

    Hello lawmakers .... anyone home?

    The agency charged with enforcing ethics in the state says two employees and a board member at the Connecticut Port Authority, an agency now under investigation by the feds for millions of dollars in spiraling construction costs, took bribes from a company eventually granted a rich contract.

    And the port authority won't say whether it is investigating who took the bribes or whether those people still work there. If they do, the ethics report is indeed about the current port authority, despite the director's claim to the contrary.

    Someone — like maybe some responsible legislators — needs to get to the bottom of it, and if the bribe takers are still there, they should be sent packing, and any enablers who are hiding them should be made to promptly resign too.

    This is the opinion of David Collins.


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