HARTFORD, CT — None of the three individuals who were decisionmakers at the Connecticut Port Authority when “questionable decisions” were made attended Tuesday’s informational hearing hosted by the legislature’s Transportation Committee.
The quasi-public agency, which receives about $400,000 in state funds annually, has come under scrutiny for a number of decisions that were made.
Bonnie Reemsnyder, chair of the Connecticut Port Authority’s board, resigned after published reports of the authority’s purchase of $3,250 of photographic office art by her daughter through a decorator. Scott Bates, who approved the purchase of the art and also serves as Deputy Secretary of the State, also resigned his seat on the board.
In June, the authority placed its executive director, Evan Matthews, on paid administrative leave for “comments made to the press unbecoming of a public sector leader,” Interim Chair of the Connecticut Port Authority Board David Kooris said Tuesday. Kooris’ comments provided first public explanation why Matthews was placed on paid leave.
The port authority is a quasi-public agency responsible for developing and marketing the state’s three deepwater ports in New London, Bridgeport and New Haven, and promoting its maritime economy.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said Tuesday’s informational hearing was “too little and unfortunately, too late.”
She said that from no-bid contracts to the payment of $3,250 for iPhone photos from Reemsynder’s daughter, it’s like the “Housewives of New London.” She said there were bad decisions made and she doesn’t believe her members will be able to ask the questions and get the answers they deserve.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, and Sen. Henri Martin, R-Bristol, wrote the co-chairs of the Transportation Committee on Aug. 9 and requested that Reemsnyder, Matthews, and Bates attend Tuesday’s meeting.
“The fact that Mr. Bates and Ms. Reemsnyder have resigned from the Authority, and that Mr. Matthews has been placed on administrative leave, should not prevent them from attending the hearing and answering questions regarding their tenure there.”
Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said the meeting “was a first step to obtain the information lawmakers need for oversight.”
“We are not going to start with a subpoena,” Leone said, adding, “We are not here on a witch hunt.”
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said they may consider subpoenas in the future for the quasi-public agency with four employees.
In addition to the audit by the Auditors of Public Accounts, there has been a whistleblower complaint alleging misuse of funds at the Port Authority. That complaint will be reviewed as part of another audit.
John Rasimas, deputy state auditor, said another audit for 2018 and 2019 is expected to be shared with lawmakers and the public in two months. The 2016-2017 audit released in May found that the authority was operating without any financial controls.
For example, in March 2017, the Connecticut Port Authority opened bank accounts but did not maintain an accounting system for the accounts, according to state auditors.
Gov. Ned Lamont has called for an independent audit of the organization. He is also seeking recommendations from lawmakers on how to make the organization more accountable.
Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief operating officer, said that when the Port Authority was set up, the necessary execution “wasn’t there” — they didn’t build in the right accounting structures. He said they need to ensure these entities are functioning at an appropriate level and have a structure. Much of Tuesday’s forum touched on the lack of policies and bylaws that would have guided the authority.
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday Lamont, who was in New York on a fishing trip with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said there were “errors in judgment” at the Connecticut Port Authority.
He said he thinks his administration made the necessary changes to restore people’s confidence in the quasi-public agency.
Lamont publicly called for Reemsnyder’s resignation and according to Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief operating officer, he had conversations with Bates, who resigned after those discussions.
Some Republicans, like Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano and Klarides, believe Bates should resign his position as Deputy Secretary of the State, too. Bates was on vacation and did not attend Tuesday’s hearing.
Stephanie Sponzo, a spokeswoman for Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, said, “It is regrettable that the House and Senate minority leaders have taken this opportunity to play politics, and insinuate that the public ought to have anything but the utmost confidence in Connecticut’s elections administration. This office remains dedicated to bolstering our state’s elections security, and the Secretary has every confidence in her agency’s ability to carry out that important mission.”
There was also discussion about who should be appointed to be members of these quasi-public boards. The appointments to all the quasi-public boards are made by the governor and legislative leaders, but not all of those appointments coincide with the term of the appointing entity.
Mounds said the governor’s office will be meeting with quasi-public leaders monthly going forward and will set up these entities for success by creating a venue for sharing of best practices and resources and ensuring overall accountability.