Ousted port authority office manager alleges questionable spending, wrongful firing

New London — The Connecticut Port Authority office manager ousted this summer claims she was fired without cause by leaders who allegedly spent in freewheeling fashion on meals, drinks and office decorations with scant oversight by the agency's board of directors.

In a statement emailed to The Day on Wednesday evening, Gerri Lewis painted a picture of discord and questionable expenses at the port authority, where officials allegedly offered her a $5,000 severance package that would have barred her from saying anything negative about personnel or operations unless under oath "in court or before an administrative agency."

Lewis said she refused to sign the agreement, partly to clear her name at a time when controversy swirled around the port authority.

Related story: OPINION: Port authority offered hush money

Lewis claimed port authority leadership, in a notice of termination on July 9, falsely "alleged failure to adequately implement, maintain and manage certain financial management practices and protocols" as grounds for her firing. The letter, she said, raised "largely unspecified concerns regarding my performance and conduct" and "claimed that these concerns had been discussed with me. Each of these contentions is false." She claimed that a month before her firing, port officials removed supervisory and financial responsibilities from her job description.

A message left with David Kooris, acting chairman of the port authority board of directors and deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, was not immediately returned. Kooris said last month that the port authority had hired an outside party to look at Lewis' separation and that the party found no "irregularities."

Leadership shakeups and controversy over spending — as well as an audit and review of quasi-public agencies by Gov. Ned Lamont's office — have plagued the port authority in recent months as officials work to seal a deal to overhaul State Pier into a hub for offshore wind development.

In June, port authority board of directors Chairman Scott Bates stepped down and was replaced by Bonnie Reemsnyder, who was the board of directors Finance Committee Chairman and is Old Lyme's First Selectwoman. Reemsnyder resigned in late July under pressure from Lamont amid news that the port authority paid her daughter $3,000 for photographs hanging on the walls of its Old Saybrook offices. Reemsnyder noted she had nothing to do with the purchase of the photographs.

Reemsnyder placed Executive Director Evan Matthews on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons on July 18; it was later revealed that Matthews made comments to the media that were "unbecoming of a public sector leader," according to a separation agreement announced earlier this month.

In her letter, Lewis said she is not the whistleblower who made claims of management misuse of funds, an allegation now being probed by state auditors.

She claimed that she received a positive performance review and a significant pay bump last year. She said she only received one written disciplinary warning, which was connected to Matthews' alleged displeasure that "he was not able to place additional charges" on a port authority debit card with a $1,500 daily limit.

Matthews, at a Houston trade show with Andrew Lavigne, who Bates hired as a consultant and later as a full-timer, "had spent the limit ... which largely included charges for food and beverages," Lewis alleged. No other concerns were mentioned in her personnel file, she said. The Day has filed a host of pending Freedom of Information Act requests with the port authority, including for Matthews' and Lewis' personnel files.

Lewis argued the port's questionable spending included about $40,000 for office decorations; Lavigne's salary of $94,000 despite allegedly "no relevant job experience"; $400 to $600 monthly mileage reimbursements for Matthews because he declined to use the port authority's vehicle for business travel; and many lunches, dinners and drinks on the port authority debit card, which Matthews allegedly described as "business development." Lewis claimed Matthews "worked from home" many Fridays and "traveled from Rhode Island and said many times that neither he nor his wife had any intention of moving to Connecticut."

"I never saw receipts for Mr. Matthews' expenses as he was not giving them to me anymore, because I always questioned him," she claimed. Instead, Matthews gave receipts to fiscal administrative assistant Cassandra Berthiaume, who along with Reemsnyder, disagreed with Lewis over which accounting software the port authority should have used, Lewis alleged.

Matthews could not be reached for comment. A message left with Bates, who "essentially ran the authority," according to Lewis, was not immediately returned.

Lewis claimed that in a July meeting with Matthews and human resources consultant Diane Wolff, Matthews said the reason for her firing was that Reemsnyder was "dissatisfied with the result of a draft audit of the authority's books and records performed by the authority's auditors, Blum Shapiro."

"I was not in any way responsible for the deficiencies cited in that report," Lewis wrote. "I was not even working for the port authority for the first few months covered by that audit."

Reached by phone, Lewis declined to comment and referred questions to her attorney, Tom Riley. Riley said in an interview that Lewis' position was that if Reemsnyder was unhappy with the draft audit report, it was "nothing (Lewis) was responsible for." Riley said he could not comment on whether Lewis was considering any legal action against the port authority.

Reemsnyder in an interview said Lewis' letter contained multiple inaccuracies and that she "did not participate in the decision to fire her." Reemsnyder also disagreed that there was conflict over accounting software. She said she would reserve any remaining comments in case she's called to testify before state lawmakers.

Lewis claimed she was "never permitted to have any meaningful role in the development of financial practices or protocols," she wrote. "These came from the authority's legal representatives, Robinson and Cole."

A message left with Robinson and Cole, a law firm that has offices in New London, was not immediately returned.

Lewis said Robinson and Cole drew up draft financial policies and procedures, which she passed on to Matthews and Reemsnyder and which made it onto the Finance Committee agenda, "but they never reached the Board." No financial policies were implemented and the Finance Committee "also never reviewed bank statements or debit card statements," Lewis alleged.

"Not only did the authority take away my livelihood, the authority damaged my personal and professional reputation by terminating my employment without explanation, amidst the controversy swirling around the authority, while it maintained Mr. Matthews on paid leave," she wrote, adding the events could harm her chances at finding another job.

b.kail@theday.com

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