Port authority chairman planning tax-funded trip to Europe
With multiple criminal investigations of the Connecticut Port Authority under way and overruns on its signature construction project soaring to many tens of millions of dollars, you would think the agency would be scrupulously careful about discretionary spending.
That’s why I was so surprised to learn that the scandal-plagued authority, which first began to make headlines years ago, with lucrative contracts to friends and reckless expense account luxuries, is planning to spend an estimated $4,000 to $5,000 to send its chairman to Copenhagen.
Authority board Chairman David Kooris described the planned trip, according to the minutes of a July 19 Finance Committee meeting, as a chance to “better understand port operations” in Europe and to see firsthand the wind power turbines that will be assembled at the new State Pier in New London and the barges that will eventually work here.
I would call the trip a junket, a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe that seems totally unnecessary. It’s not a lot of money at issue, but a principle is at stake.
After all, if an inspection trip was planned years ago, before Gov. Ned Lamont wrote a blank check to build out New London as a wind assembly port, at any cost, maybe it would have made some sense to go see what was being proposed.
But there’s apparently no turning back now with the New London project and its staggering cost overruns.
What if Chairman Kooris goes to Copenhagen and discovers the working wind assembly port there is a horrible, noisy, ugly thing that we’d never want here?
The port authority is essentially going to be the landlord, owner of the new port facility, and not directly involved in its operation. So why does anyone from the port authority need to go learn anything about how the facility will be run?
If the port authority was going to become landlord to a pizza restaurant would the authority chairman have to go Italy to learn how pizza is made?
I didn’t hear, in any of the committee or board discussions of the port authority’s participation in a trip that will also include delegates from utilities Orsted and Eversource, how many people the agency was planning to send.
But when I put that question and some others in an email to Kooris and Executive Director Ulysses Hammond, Hammond wrote back to say there will be a “single participant” from the authority.
I take that to be Kooris, who told the Finance Committee he planned to go.
Hammond also said _ when I relayed a question raised by a board member, about whether the agency will increase its travel budget to accommodate the trip _ that it will be paid from the Marketing and Business Development budget.
Marketing? Really? Maybe Chairman Kooris will wear a Connecticut Port Authority t-shirt while touring in Copenhagen?
Some board members said they support the trip, as there is no substitute for in-person meetings.
There was, thankfully, a general consensus in meetings that the authority should not accept money for the trip from its private partners, the rich utilities.
Board member John Johnson, who continues to routinely vote on State Pier issues despite a ruling from the Connecticut Office of State Ethics that he shouldn’t, noted that having private partners pay for the trip would be “bad optics.”
Johnson offered the strongest endorsement of the authority participating in the trip, which he suggested will in the end cost more than the estimate, calling the trip idea “absolutely dead nuts on.”
But board member David Pohorylo, who raised what he said were the bad optics in port authority paying to send someone to Europe, said he wanted to see more documentation as to the value of the trip and why some Zoom meetings wouldn’t suffice.
It was Pohorylo who asked for a report on whether the authority’s travel budget would be increased.
I’d sure like to hear from Connecticut lawmakers on this one.
Do they all think it’s a good idea for a scandal-plagued agency, under investigation by both state and federal authorities, to use taxpayer money to send someone to Europe on a venture that at least one board member suggests is an unnecessary trip.
Do the lawmakers agree that sending someone to Europe is a good use of the port authority’s marketing budget?
Come on legislators, chime in. Otherwise, your silence on the management of the port authority and its profligate spending continues to be deafening.
This is the opinion of David Collins