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Round two: Connecticut Port Authority again to face questioning by lawmakers

State lawmakers will get to question at least one of the key decision-makers at the Connecticut Port Authority when the Transportation Committee convenes its second forum on the quasi-public agency next week.

The forum will take place on Dec. 4 at 10:30 a.m. in Room 1E of the Legislative Office Building. Members of the public will not be permitted to ask questions.

Committee members will be informed by the findings of a recent state audit of the port authority, which showed that salaries, legal and consulting costs ballooned in recent years, with the quasi-public agency spending 67 percent of its operating budget on those expenditures alone last fiscal year. The audit also found that the port authority did not have basic ethics or operating procedures in place.

In its response to the audit, the port authority said most of the findings already are being addressed through oversight by the governor's office or other means, including recent ethics training taken by its board and staff.

Republican and Democratic leadership of the committee have been divided over who to invite to the hearing. Democratic Co-chairs Rep. Roland Lemar and Sen. Carlo Leone requested the attendance of the two former chairs of the board: Scott Bates, who has said he will attend, and Bonnie Reemsnyder, who has declined to comment on her attendance.

The heads of the committee have said they also plan to ask former executive director Evan Matthews to appear. But it wasn't clear, as of Friday, whether they decided to invite Matthews, who resigned Oct. 1 after being on paid leave for nearly three months for making comments to the news media that were "unbecoming of a public sector leader," acting board Chairman David Kooris had said in August.

Neither of the committee co-chairs was available for comment Friday.

The Republican ranking members of the committee, Sen. Henri Martin and Rep. Laura Devlin, sent invitations to several other port authority staff, including ousted office manager Gerri Lewis; Andrew Lavigne, who oversees business development and special projects; Diane Wolff, a human resources consultant; Casandra Berthiaume, fiscal administrative supervisor, and state Comptroller Kevin Lembo, who has raised concerns about the port authority's reporting of its financial information.

Following the release of the audit, Matthews sent a three-page statement to The Day, saying, in part, that he received approval for all expenditures by either the board chair or finance committee members. Bates, who is deputy secretary of the state, was the chair of the port authority for the majority of the time Matthews was executive director. He also helped the agency negotiate a new port operator for State Pier in New London and was heavily involved in negotiations to remake the facility into an offshore wind hub.

The port authority receives about $400,000 in state appropriations, in addition to revenue from leasing the state-owned State Pier.

Committee members had requested that Bates and other key port authority officials testify at the first forum on the agency convened by the Transportation Committee in late August, arguing they were the best to answer questions about how the agency operated.

That forum, which lasted more than five hours, focused on previous audits, covering fiscal years 2016 and 2017, with state auditors fielding host of questions about accounting and spending practices at the port authority. Paul Mounds Jr., the chief operating officer for the state, and Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development and acting chair of the port authority's board, also provided testimony and answered questions.

j.bergman@theday.com

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