Key Connecticut Port Authority figures testify at legislative forum
The former executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority had a massive stroke in late May 2017, effectively sidelining the agency’s only real employee at the time.
Evan Matthews said the port authority’s board allowed him to work from home for several months, and in the fall he hired an officer manager to help with day-to-day operations. Around the same time, he hired a part-time consultant to help with some of the agency’s larger tasks, such as developing a maritime strategy for the state. The agency also “leaned on” its outside legal counsel following his stroke, he said.
Matthews was one of three key port authority officials to testify Wednesday at a forum in Hartford convened by the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee. The second such hearing held on the agency, it lasted more than seven hours.
Matthews was placed on paid administrative leave on July 12 for comments he made to the news media about a vocal critic of the port authority and ultimately was forced to resign on Oct. 1. He said he was never offered the opportunity to defend himself before being placed on leave.
Former port authority board members and the two former board chairs, Scott Bates and Bonnie Reemsnyder, also testified at the forum. They and Matthews were questioned by committee members for four hours about various aspects of how the agency operated.
All three said the port authority, a quasi-public agency that receives $400,000 annually from the state, lacked guidance from the start and could have benefitted from a chief financial officer or fiscal manager, a clear set of requirements and more staffing. Two former Department of Transportation employees worked for the agency to start, but they reported to the department, not the port authority’s board, Matthews said.
The port authority was established by a 2014 law to market the state’s maritime economy, but the agency did not become operational until 2016 and initially fell under the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Matthews said he received conflicting guidance about what policies the agency was supposed to have in place from the port authority’s legal counsel, Robinson & Cole, who told him that was not a requirement. State auditors have maintained that by law all quasi-public agencies in Connecticut are required to have policies regarding affirmative action and surplus funding, for example.
Matthews said the authority established operating procedures in March 2017. But the state auditors found that the agency did not have basic operating controls in place governing spending or personnel.
The most recent state audit, which covered fiscal years 2018 and 2019, found that the port authority spent $328,887 on personnel in fiscal year 2018 and $613,119 in fiscal year 2019 due to the hiring of more employees. The audit found no issues with the increase in spending on personnel.
A whistleblower complaint alleging financial mismanagement at the port authority led to the most recent audit, which was completed earlier than usual as a result. The auditors forwarded the complaint to the state’s attorney general.
The audit also found there was no process or policies governing money spent on travel and meals, and that in many instances there was no documentation for those expenses.
Another finding by auditors was that the port authority used its legal counsel to do work that did not need to be done by lawyers, such as drafting agendas for board meetings. The port authority spent about $1 million on legal services over the two fiscal years covered by the audit.
Bates, who served as board chairman from early 2016 until June of this year, said much of those legal expenses were connected to the selection of a new port operator for State Pier in New London and subsequent negotiations to transform the facility into an offshore wind hub, actions he described as major accomplishments of the board during his tenure.
Bates, who is deputy secretary of the state, said he stepped down as chair in June because he felt he had accomplished what he set out to do and because he has a teenage son at home and his wife has a demanding schedule.
Bates said he resigned from the board completely in August because he wanted the “new management” to have the opportunity to “move forward with new people if they saw the need to do that.” He said no one asked him to resign, and that it was a personal decision, a point Paul Mounds, the chief operating officer for the state, contested later in the hearing. Mounds said Bates resigned at the request of the governor following a report that he approved the purchase of photographs from Reemsnyder’s daughter as decoration in the port authority’s Old Saybrook office.
That was the same reason the governor asked Reemsnyder, who took over as board chair for Bates, to resign in late July. Her daughter later refunded the port authority for the photographs.
Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, asked Bates to explain the decision, under his tenure as chair, to hire two firms to do communications and marketing work, and pressed him on whether he knew the owner of one of the companies, Dealy Mahler Strategies. Bates said he knew of the owner’s work for President Barack Obama’s administration and that she developed a report for the Connecticut Institute for the 21st Century, of which he served as executive director for a time.
The board, he said, agreed to a $120,000 annual budget for marketing and communications and the port authority got two responses to its request for proposals for the work: one from Dealy Mahler and one from Quinn & Hary Marketing, which was already doing website development and graphic design for the port authority.
The board decided to split the work between the two firms, allotting $3,500 a month for Quinn & Hary and $6,500 monthly for Dealy Mahler to handle strategic communications, he said.
Martin also asked Bates about the hiring of Andrew Lavigne, who initially worked as a part-time consultant and then became an employee overseeing business development and special projects. Bates said he and Lavigne worked together at the Center for National Policy in Washington, D.C., and that Bates recommended that Matthews consider Lavigne for the office manager position advertised in the fall of 2017, but said he was not a part of the hiring process.
Matthews ultimately hired a woman named Gerri Lewis to be the office manager and hired Lavigne as a consultant. He said “all subsequent amendments” to Lavigne’s contract were approved by the board.
Matthews fired Lewis days before he was placed on leave, and indicated Wednesday that he did so because she was not performing her job. “A lot of the problems we’re talking about right now, recording-keeping, management, transactions,” he said.
Lewis has claimed she was fired without cause and has alleged questionable spending at the authority. She has said she would be interested in speaking with any state or federal entity investigating the port authority.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, asked Matthews about two specific expenses in the audits: hotel stays in Mystic, one for a conference in Darien and another for a hearing in New Haven. Matthews said at times he stayed at hotels when he had meetings in different parts of the state on consecutive days and because his doctor did not want him driving at night following his stroke.
Reemsnyder, the former Old Lyme first selectwoman who was chair of the authority's Finance Committee, said initially, when the port authority still was under the purview of DECD, Matthews was paying for work-related expenses out of pocket. She said she reviewed those expenses to make sure “all the receipts and documents were there,” then she would approve reimbursements to Matthews.
Once the port authority got its own checking account, the expenses were reviewed by the office manager and she got monthly reports, which she said showed the expenses were within budget.
Gov. Ned Lamont, following revelations of questionable spending and personnel issues over the summer, put in place various oversight measures over the authority.
Office of Policy and a Management Secretary Melissa McCaw updated committee members on those efforts Wednesday. Her office now reviews all payments and “key contracts” at the port authority and has issued a request for proposals for a “more cost-effective approach” to outside legal services, among other actions. The Lamont administration plans to issue a number of recommendations on the port authority to the General Assembly at the start of the next legislative session. Oversight of the port authority by the governor’s office is expected to last another six months, McCaw said.
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