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    Tuesday, August 09, 2022

    Office of State Ethics fines company for providing illegal gifts to Connecticut Port Authority

    A company hired as a consultant by the Connecticut Port Authority to find an operator for State Pier in New London has agreed to a $10,000 settlement with the Office of State Ethics for providing a variety of gifts to two CPA employees, an employee’s wife and a port authority board member.

    An investigation by the state’s Office of State Ethics enforcement division determined that New York-based Seabury Maritime violated the state code of ethics for public officials in 2017 and again in 2019 when the company provided gifts that included meals, drinks and in one instance NHL playoff hockey tickets.

    The Office of State Ethics, in a press statement on Tuesday, said Seabury admitted it provided gifts totaling $800 to the unnamed CPA employee and the employee’s spouse at a May 2, 2017, charity event in New York, including food, drinks and a leather accessory. Seabury, on Aug. 16, 2017, paid for an overnight stay at a private club in Greenwich and for food and drinks for the CPA employee, the employee’s spouse and a CPA board member.

    In 2019, while Seabury was under contract to advise CPA and seeking additional contracts, the company provided $2,300 worth of gifts — food, drinks, and a leather handbag to a CPA employee and the CPA employee’s spouse at a different charity event in New York. Seabury additionally provided two National Hockey League playoff game tickets, worth $675 each, to two CPA employees along with food and drinks at a Boston restaurant.

    Under state law, no public official or state employee can accept, directly or indirectly, any gift from any anyone they are either doing business with or which is seeking to do business with the agency in which they are employees. Each instance where a gift was given constitutes a separate and distinct violation, the Office of State Ethics said in a statement.

    Seabury, as the result of the stipulated agreement, agreed to pay the $2,500 for the 2017 violations and $7,500 for the 2019 violations. The agreement was signed by Jeffrey Erickson, acting financial officer for Seabury PFRA, LLC on June 28 and by Mark Wasielweski, enforcement officer with the Connecticut Office of State Ethics on July 5.

    Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the Office of State Ethics, said Tuesday that the he could not provide further information, such as the names of the CPA employees or board members. He said he could not confirm whether his office is pursuing any other complaints.

    In a statement, Lewandowski said that prior to the settlement, Seabury had received reimbursement for the May 9, 2019, hockey tickets, food and drinks. But the reimbursement did not come within 30 days of the violation as required by state statute. The other gifts have not been reimbursed by the recipients.

    “Private companies that seek to engage state and quasi-public agencies for contracts must understand that fostering good will with state officials and employees cannot involve provision of impermissible gifts,” Lewandowski said in a statement.  “Violation of the Code’s gift laws will be forcefully prosecuted by the Office of State Ethics.”

    Seabury is the same company, hired by the CPA in 2018, that has come under scrutiny after it was revealed the CPA paid Seabury a $523,000 "success fee" in 2020 as part of a settlement for work performed. As a result, the Connecticut Port Authority remains the subject of an ongoing investigation by the attorney general’s office.

    The quasi-public Connecticut Port Authority, established in 2014 to market the state’s maritime assets, has had a rocky past. In 2019, state auditors responding to a whistleblower complaint about misuse of funds found it did not have basic accounting practices in place, such as written policies covering personnel practices. It was the same year that former former Board Chairman Scott Bates resigned and Executive Director Evan Matthews, who had served as executive director since 2016, was placed on leave. Matthews resigned later in 2019 after state audits that revealed questionable spending habits.

    More recently, the State Contracting Standards Board identified issues and possible violations of state statute committed by the Connecticut Port Authority during its time working toward the redevelopment of State Pier in New London.

    The state legislature and Gov. Ned Lamont have since instituted tighter reporting requirements for the agency.

    The Connecticut Port Authority, now under the helm of interim Executive Director Ulysses Hammond and overseeing a $255.5 million overhaul of the State Pier to accommodate the wind industry, issued a statement on Tuesday in response to The Day.

    "This is an unfortunate reminder of issues that occurred under prior leadership at the Port Authority (the Authority) in 2017 and 2019. Under new leadership, beginning in late 2019, the Authority performed a complete overhaul of its policies and procedures. With the assistance of the Office of Policy and Management and outside auditors, the Authority updated its ethics policies and all employees and board members now receive annual ethics training and certifications,” the statement read.

    “Contractors are similarly made aware of the proper protocols. We learned today of this outcome of the Office of State Ethics' investigation into these matters from three plus years ago and, based on their efforts to hold individuals and companies accountable, Authority stakeholders should be reassured that matters from the past will be thoroughly and transparently investigated.”

    A representative from Seabury was not immediately available to comment on Tuesday.  

    g.smith@theday.com

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