Scott Bates to testify at hearing on Connecticut Port Authority

With questions lingering over staff upheaval and controversial spending at the Connecticut Port Authority, its former board chairman Scott Bates plans to testify at an upcoming legislative hearing on the quasi-public agency.

That Transportation Committee informational forum is Dec. 4, during which committee members plan to question several port authority officials.

However, as of Saturday evening, it was still unclear whether former executive director Evan Matthews or Bonnie Reemsnyder, who replaced Bates as chair of the board in June after serving as its vice chair and finance committee chair, were planning to attend. Neither responded to messages left by The Day on Saturday.

In a Saturday email to The Day, Bates, who is the current deputy secretary of the state, wrote that he was invited Friday evening to the forum by Transportation Committee Co-chairs Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, and Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, and said he responded to them Saturday morning.

Bates did not take calls or answer further questions from The Day on Saturday, but wrote by email that he looked “forward to answering the committee's questions to the best of my ability based on the information available to me.”

Bates, whom the port authority's board nominated as its chairman at its first meeting in 2016, played a major role in actions taken by the agency in its first few years, including selecting a new port operator for State Pier and negotiating a $93 million public-private investment to establish an offshore wind hub in New London.

Those negotiations are ongoing but, in the wake of scandals that have plagued the port authority, lawmakers have questioned the agency's ability to negotiate such a major deal.

Both Lemar and Leone had invited Bates, Matthews and Reemsnyder to appear at the Transportation Committee's initial forum on the quasi-public agency’s spending and personnel issues.

That forum, held in August after investigative reports by The Day brought several issues at the agency to light, lasted more than five hours. It featured testimony from the authority's now-acting Chairman David Kooris and state auditors, as well as a representative from the governor's office.

Bates did not attend, saying he was out of the country for a "family event" he had planned long beforehand.

Reemsnyder — who resigned as board chair July 24 at Gov. Ned Lamont's request after reports that the port authority paid her daughter $3,000 for photographs that hung in its Old Saybrook office — and former executive director Matthews — who was placed on administrative leave for months before he resigned from the authority — also did not attend.

However, Reemsnyder, who said she had "pre-existing business commitments" related to her job as Old Lyme's first selectwoman, did submit written testimony for that forum so that "people are more fully informed" of the facts surrounding her resignation. In her statement, she said she initially was unaware of her daughter being approached by an interior designer hired by Matthews, but then, after finding out later, immediately informed Matthews she could not be involved "with any aspect of the transaction" and told her daughter the same.

Still, the former authority officials' absence prompted outcry from state legislators, who said it was imperative that Bates, Reemsnyder and Matthews answer questions to form a more complete picture of port authority activities in recent years.

Rep. Lemar told The Day on Friday that he planned to invite both Reemsnyder and Bates to the forum. It was not clear whether he also would invite Matthews.

Lemar also told The Day Friday that while it was not customary for the Transportation Committee to issue subpoenas, it does have that option. He said the committee first wanted to invite the former port authority officials to the forum, with an RSVP date, before taking such an action.

Bates’ announcement comes after several state legislators, including Republican Senate Leader Len Fasano, have made calls in recent weeks for the Transportation Committee to host another forum for further questioning of port authority officials, especially now that state auditors released a 33-page audit last month that revealed soaring and questionable spending at the agency.

Fasano sent a letter Oct. 9 to Leone and Lemar, saying there is an "immediate need for further hearings investigating the allegations of untoward behavior" at the port authority, including those made by the agency's ousted office manager, Gerri Lewis.

Lewis, in a statement sent to The Day and other news outlets in September, had claimed she was fired this summer without cause by leaders who allegedly spent lavishly on meals, drinks and office decorations with scant oversight. Lewis had said in the statement that she is "willing to speak to any state or federal entity conducting an investigation into the activities of the authority upon request."

After financial audits of port authority spending were released in October, state Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Lyme, and Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, also called for further action. A second hearing, they argued, would allow lawmakers to hear from port authority employees, including Lewis, and board members, such as Reemsnyder and Bates, who did not speak at the earlier hearing.

"It's important for the legislators to really understand what went wrong over the last two years," Carney, who is a member of the Transportation Committee, said by phone Saturday. "The audit wasn't very good, so I think it's important to hear from the folks who were intimately involved with the port authority at that time, and why they did what they did. Then we can go from there to see how we can make the port authority better and improve the public's confidence in the port authority."

m.biekert@theday.com

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