Officials not surprised by news of new Connecticut Port Authority probe
New London ― Two state senators who closely follow the business of the Connecticut Port Authority said Friday they were not surprised by news that a federal grand jury had subpoenaed six years of authority records.
State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, both expressed a lack of surprise about Thursday’s report about the records by Day columnist David Collins. The subpoena by a sitting grand jury in New Haven, dated March 16, signals a federal investigation is underway. The U.S. Attorney’s office, however, does not comment on pending investigations.
“I’m not surprised at anything that happens at the port authority because it’s been one situation after another,” Osten said on Friday.
Osten was among state legislators to call for a hearing before the legislature’s Transportation Committee in 2019 to discuss leadership changes and apparent dysfunction at the port authority. In 2019, after former executive director Evan Matthews had been placed on leave and later forced to resign, auditors started looking at financial records because of a whistleblower complaint. Two former board chairs, Scott Bates and Bonnie Reemsnyder, also resigned.
“I think what we should have been done is to clean house when it all happened,” Osten said.
The port authority, since that time, has come under fire for escalating costs of the construction project at State Pier in New London that has risen from $93 million to more than $255 million. State Pier is being transformed into a hub for the offshore wind industry.
Osten, last year, joined with other legislators to approve a port authority oversight bill that requires regular status reports on items such as port projects, proposals and contracts. She also discussed the idea of reverting the oversight of the state’s ports to the state Department of Transportation.
Formica on Friday said he wasn’t surprised because signs had long pointed in the direction of an investigation.
“I think we all knew and heard rumblings of an investigation. I think I was surprised of the breadth of the investigation and how far it went back. I think it goes back to the beginning when there were clearly some issues there,” Formica said.
In February of 2021, Formica, the Senate Republican leader pro tempore, and State Republican Leader Kevin Kelly, had each called for the state attorney general to conduct a probe into port authority contracts. The response from the attorney general’s office was an investigation was already underway.
Formica said the fact that the state had to intervene and place a member of the Office of Policy and Management at the authority to provide financial oversight was another clear sign of something wrong.
“Not having seen the documents and knowing what’s going on… it would seem to me we’re back in that same time period when Evan Mathews was executive director,” Formica said of the subpoenaed documents.
Formica, who was elected in 2015, said the 2019 hearings and results of audits revealed that when the Port Authority formed in 2014 it lacked guidance and a clear set of bylaws and policies.
“It kind off got off on the wrong foot,” Formica said. “The mishaps occurred. There were errors in judgment. It seemed to snowball.”
The latest revelations to come to light were of ethics violations committed by port authority employees and board members who accepted gifts from a client.
Connecticut Port Authority Board Chairman David Kooris, who joined the board in July 2019, said on Friday that the port authority “is confident we provided everything that was requested of us (by the Department of Justice) in a timely manner.”
“We did a very comprehensive collection and transfer of information,” Kooris said.
Part of the material requested in the subpoena was provided to other investigatory bodies in the past. In addition to providing documents to auditors in 2019, the port authority has handed over documents as part of an ethics probe by the Office of State Ethics and to the state attorney general’s office as part of its antitrust probe. The port authority additionally provided information to the State Contracting Standards Board when that group investigated the port authority’s procurement activities.
Kooris said the subpoena was delivered on March 23 and the board of directors was informed shorty thereafter.
“My first and foremost reaction was how can we be as compliant as possible and frankly a hope that this marks a turning point in closing the book in a chapter of stuff that took place before I got here,” Kooris said.
“There’s some irony in the people’s perception that these investigations must be bad for us. I see it as a step towards resolution. I want nothing more than to resolve these outstanding issues and investigations and let us achieve closure,” Kooris said.
Anthony M. Anthony, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Gov. Ned Lamont became aware of the existence of a U.S. Department of Justice subpoena to the Connecticut Port Authority in July.
While the subpoena calls for documents dating back to 2016, Anthony said in a statement that Lamont “took immediate action upon the start of his Administration in 2019 to enhance financial and compliance controls as well as rebuild trust and confidence in the Connecticut Port Authority.”
“The Governor called for a thorough review of management, financial, and operational integrity. As a result, changes in executive leadership and the chair position on the Board of Directors were made, resulting in annual independent audits of company wide and individual expenses, updates to financial accounting systems, mandated ethics training and the establishment of an Ethics Compliance Officer, and strengthened transparency measures to improve public accountability,” the statement from the governor’s office reads.