Port authority reveals why director was placed on leave, but questions linger

Hartford — The reason behind Evan Matthews, the executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority, being placed on paid administrative leave was finally revealed Tuesday during a five-hour informational hearing convened by the Connecticut General Assembly's Transportation Committee.

Matthews is on leave for comments he made to the media that were "unbecoming of a public sector leader," said David Kooris, acting chair of the port authority's board.

However, there are still many lingering questions surrounding the embattled quasi-public agency, given that several of the decision-makers, including Matthews, did not attend the hearing.

Tuesday's hearing followed a series of personnel issues at the port authority including the resignation of two of its board members, who also served as chair: Bonnie Reemsnyder, Old Lyme's first selectwoman, and Scott Bates, deputy secretary of the state.

On Tuesday, Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of New Haven wrote to Secretary of the State Denise Merrill asking her to temporarily remove Bates from his position as deputy secretary, "given the recent public allegations regarding the Connecticut Port Authority involving questionable purchases, contracts, and employment decisions." House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, at a news conference prior to the hearing, called for Bates to resign from his post entirely.

Questions also have been raised about the operations of the port authority, including financial decision-making. The port authority receives about $400,000 in state appropriations, in addition to revenue from leasing State Pier, which it owns, in New London.

The hearing started with discussion by state auditors on the findings of their most recent audit of the port authority, which covers fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Auditors found, for example, that the port authority did not maintain accounting records detailing the transactions and balances of its bank accounts during the audited period.

Kooris, who is deputy commissioner of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, did not specify the comments made by Matthews that led to his being placed on leave. He said discussions are ongoing with Matthews to "work out a solution amenable to both parties," and that any next steps would be discussed by and authorized by the board before any action is taken.

Matthews, who was invited to but did not attend Tuesday's hearing, said to The Day on July 11 in regard to Kevin Blacker, a vocal critic of the port authority, "There is something off about him. He either has autism or there is something about him that is anti-social."

Blacker was questioned by state police on Tuesday, shortly after he arrived at the Legislative Office Building for the hearing, in reference to an email he sent over the weekend to Gov. Ned Lamont and a host of others, the subject line of which read, "Governor Lamont is a yellow-belly, My blood will be his hands." After being questioned, Blacker attended the hearing with no issue. The public was not given an opportunity to comment at the hearing.

Klarides, and Reps. Devin Carney of Old Lyme and Laura Devlin of Fairfield, both Republicans who sit on the Transportation Committee, held the news conference prior to the hearing to call out Rep. Roland Lemar and Sen. Carlo Leone, the Democratic co-chairs of the committee, for not using their subpoena powers to compel Matthews, Bates and Reemsnyder to appear before the committee.

Lemar and Leone had invited Bates, Matthews and Reemsnyder to appear at the hearing. Reemsnyder submitted written testimony, saying she had "pre-existing business commitments" related to her job as first selectwoman, but said she wanted to provide written comment so that "people are more fully informed" of the facts surrounding her resignation. It was not clear whether Matthews or Bates responded the co-chairs' invitation.

Reemsnyder, who most recently served as chair, resigned July 24 at the request of Gov. Lamont after reports that the port authority paid her daughter for photographs that hung in its Old Saybrook office. She said in her statement that she initially was unaware of her daughter being approached by an interior designer hired by Matthews.

When she did become aware, she said she immediately informed Matthews and told him she could not be involved "with any aspect of the transaction," and told her daughter the same. Emails that The Day obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request show that Bates approved the purchase, and that he knew the money was going to Reemsnyder's daughter.

Bates, who served as chair of the board from its inception until June, played a pivotal role in the major actions taken by the port authority 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 and lawmakers during the hearing questioned the port authority's ability to negotiate such a major deal, given recent controversy.

The details of the deal and the negotiations have not been made public, but Kooris said Tuesday that a public meeting to discuss the harbor development agreement associated with the deal will be held on Sept. 17 in New London, with the exact location to be determined.

Lawmakers questioned past spending by the port authority, the need for quasi-public agencies, as well as the makeup of their boards, and whether further oversight is required.

Paul Mounds Jr., the chief operating officer for the state, pointed to actions by the governor to increase oversight of the state's quasi-public agencies, whose board members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders. Mounds indicated that one change that Lamont might propose in the upcoming legislative session is to have the terms of the board members match up with those who appoint them.

j.bergman@theday.com

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