HARTFORD, CT — Excessive legal, travel, and meal expenses are just some of the things the Auditors for Public Accounts found in their look into the Connecticut Port Authority’s finances.
The quasi-public agency created to manage five Connecticut ports came under fire earlier this year for a number of decisions that were made public.
Bonnie Reemsnyder, chair of the Connecticut Port Authority’s board, resigned following news reports about the authority’s expenditure of $3,250 to purchase photographic office art from 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. The $3,250 was refunded and the artwork was returned to the artist, according to Thursday’s audit.
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.”
David Kooris, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, is the current board chair and has been instructed to negotiate a separation agreement with Matthews.
The agency has remained under the oversight of Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration since shortly after the news of the art purchases was reported, and several reviews of the agency’s operations, including personnel and financial policies, are ongoing.
Those reviews are in addition to Thursday’s audit of the authority for business transacted during 2018-19.
The auditors made 11 findings as part of their second audit of the authority.
One of the findings was the lack of policies and poor documentation of travel, meals, and entertainment expenses.
According to the audit, the Connecticut Port Authority (CPA) could not document 36 transactions totaling about $5,754. The authority also had receipts for 71 transactions totaling $7,316, but the receipts did not support their claims that these were business expenses.
The authority also spent $541 on two transactions for a hotel stay in Mystic to attend the Western Container International Trade Association meeting in Darien, 90 miles away. Another stay in Mystic was for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers event in New Haven where Matthews presented for about an hour.
“CPA could not tell us why it paid for a two-night hotel stay in Mystic for this hearing,” the auditors wrote.
During the same period of the hotel stays, the authority paid $571 in restaurant charges.
The review also included five transactions related to office snacks and beverages totaling $579 in March, April, and June 2018, as well as in April 2019. There were only four people at most who worked in the office at the time.
“Snack and beverage expenses appear to be excessive, considering the number of CPA employees,” the auditors said.
The auditors also said that because of a lack of proper documentation, they were unable to determine whether many of the meal, hotel, and entertainment expenses were reasonable and necessary.
The authority told the auditors that they adopted a mileage reimbursement policy in September, and the rest of the policies will be presented to the board in January. Kooris also issued a directive that no travel or entertainment expenses are to be incurred without his prior approval.
The audit also found that the Connecticut Port Authority spent more on legal fees than was necessary.
Legal expenses totaled $243,685 and $670,720 during 2018 and 2019, respectively.
“Our review of four payments to attorneys, totaling $45,067, disclosed that CPA, in many instances, requested attorneys to perform tasks that would typically be assigned to CPA employees at a significantly lower hourly rate. For example, outside attorneys responded to our general audit questions, drafted responses to our prior audit recommendations, drafted board-meeting agendas, assisted with the preparation of annual reports, and drafted various policies and procedures,” the auditors wrote.
The auditors also found that the bills didn’t include itemized rates for each attorney in the practice.
“Without such critical information, it is not clear how CPA was able to confirm the accuracy of the invoices,” the auditors wrote.
The auditors also found the accounting system lacked controls and employees lacked training on it.
The Connecticut Port Authority agrees with the finding.
As part of its memorandum of understanding, the state Office of Policy and Management has contracted with a former municipal finance director who is working with CPA staff to make improvements with the authority’s accounting systems and software.
The authority said they expect to have QuickBooks accounting up and running by the end of this year.
The audit raises more questions for lawmakers looking to restore trust in the beleaguered authority.
“After carefully reviewing the findings in this report, I remain committed to finding solutions to ensure the Connecticut Port Authority serves its purpose,” Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said. “As co-chair of the Transpiration Committee, I am confident in our ability to address this issue.”
Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, was not as confident.
“The slow drip of information only further damages the public trust,” Fasano said. “We need complete transparency. We need to hear from multiple whistleblowers who have spoken to the press and others. We need to hear from the employees and board members who allegedly misused funds and approved such spending.”
Matthews and the other employees who were at the Connecticut Port Authority during the audited period are no longer with the agency.
“This audit raises even further questions about the practices and policies within the Port Authority that must be addressed,” Fasano said.
Lamont wasn’t going to make any excuses for the quasi-public agency.
“What was happening at the Port Authority under the prior management was inexcusable and below what we should expect from an entity such as this,” Lamont said. “My office has worked and will continue to work to ensure the Port Authority is accountable and that measures are in place to make that happens.”
An Oct. 18 letter from Kooris details the steps he has taken as acting chair of the board, including an independent audit and the discontinuation of the debit and credit cards.