Fasano calls for probe of port authority contracts and bids

State Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of New Haven is calling for an "immediate legal and financial examination" of all contracts and bids under the purview of the Connecticut Port Authority since its inception.

Fasano wrote a letter Wednesday to Attorney General William Tong and Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management Melissa McCaw asking them to review all current contracts, past contracts and bids signed by the port authority.

Elizabeth Benton, spokeswoman for the attorney general, said Tong's office is reviewing the request. OPM spokesman Chris McClure said that office will give the request "due consideration as we continue our exhaustive review of the port authority's finances and operations."

Fasano, in his letter, acknowledged efforts by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont to increase financial oversight of the port authority such as directing an independent audit of the agency's finances and management practices and placing McCaw in charge of financial decision making at the authority.

"While those are important steps, I believe we are missing a needed joint effort to immediately examine information available to the state today from both a legal and financial perspective," Fasano said.

The results, he said, will help the administration in overseeing financial decisions for the port authority going forward.

The port authority receives about $400,000 in state appropriations annually, in addition to revenue from leasing State Pier, which it owns, in New London. In fiscal year 2019, the port authority had about $1.7 million in operating revenue. Salaries, fringe benefits and other contractual services make up most of the port authority's expenses.

Emails to and from port authority officials that The Day received through a Freedom of Information Act request raise questions about discretionary spending at the quasi-public agency, including the selection of an interior designer to outfit its Old Saybrook office, a payment made to a daughter of a board member for artwork that hung in the office, and a contract for marketing and communications work.

More major action taken by the port authority includes signing a long-term agreement earlier this year with New Haven-based port operator Gateway to manage State Pier, and negotiating a planned $93 million public-private investment at the facility to enable it to be used as a staging area by the offshore wind industry. A public meeting to detail the harbor development agreement intrinsic to those negotiations, which are ongoing, will be held on Sept. 17 in New London, with an exact location to be determined.

The most recent audit of the port authority by state auditors found that it did not have basic accounting and personnel practices in place. The audit covered the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years.

As a result of a complaint received by state auditors in late May related to mismanagement and misuse of funds at the port authority, the office decided to immediately conduct the next regular audit of the agency, which includes a review of procurement and contracting processes. The office is working expeditiously to complete that audit, which is expected in next couple of months.

These issues were the subject of a five-hour hearing convened Tuesday by the General Assembly's Transportation Committee. Those involved in the decision-making at the port authority, including Executive Director Evan Matthews, who is on paid administrative leave for comments he made to the news media, and Scott Bates, who served as chair of the port authority's board from its inception until June and is also deputy secretary of the state, were not present at the hearing.

Fasano on Tuesday asked Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to temporarily remove Bates from his post as deputy pending further review of his role at the port authority. House Republican Leader Themis Klarides, also on Tuesday, called for Bates to resign immediately.

Bates did not respond to an email requesting comment Wednesday. An out-of-office message says he's out of the country for a family event.

j.bergman@theday.com

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