HARTFORD, CT — The massive stroke suffered by the Connecticut Port Authority’s former executive director, Evan Matthews, on May 26, 2017, took a toll on operations and contributed to the contracting issues at the quasi-public agency.
Matthews, who voluntarily testified Wednesday at the Transportation Committee’s public hearing on a second state audit of the organization, said some of the contracting issues “were related to the CPA reacting to this emergency.” He also said he was not given a chance to sit down with the auditors and explain to them the unique circumstances “to give them context for why some decisions were being made.”
However, Matthews had been asked to provide written responses to questions from the Auditors of Public Accounts as part of their fact-finding process. He answered some, but not all of their questions.
Matthews was the only Connecticut Port Authority (CPA) employee at the time of his stroke. When he returned to work following the stroke he realized they needed to hire an office manager because he could no longer type. He was also unable to drive to the office in Old Saybrook, so he said much of his work was done from his home in Rhode Island.
The volunteer board members stepped in during his absence to move the offices from Hartford to Old Saybrook.
Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said he doesn’t think the inability of the Port Authority to function properly was tied solely to the lack of staffing, but he believes it did contribute to some of the problems.
“It was part of the problem, but it wasn’t the problem,” Leone said.
The first of the two state audits released in the past few months pointed out that the Port Authority was operating without any financial controls. For example, in March 2017, the CPA opened bank accounts but did not maintain an accounting system for the accounts.
The second audit released on Oct. 31 criticized the CPA for excessive legal, travel, and meal expenses.
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.
Matthews said the Office of State Ethics sent him a letter Nov. 13 concluding there was no reason to open an investigation. It was unclear what exactly the allegation might have been. Matthews said he assumed it was related to the photographs.
The Office of State Ethics was unable to confirm or deny the existence of a complaint.
“They have concluded the evaluation and have insufficient probable cause for the issuance of a formal complaint at this time,” Matthews told the committee. “As such, our file is now closed.”
He said he thinks it’s unfortunate the governor’s office decided to take over the Port Authority and asked Reemsnyder to resign “based on the opinion of a local columnist.” The purchase of the artwork was first reported by The Day.
Matthews said no one from the governor’s office has ever tried to contact him “to allow me to explain myself.”
Reemsnyder told the committee Wednesday that Lamont asked her to resign because the Port Authority bought “engineered sound panels from my daughter.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s Chief Operating Officer, Paul Mounds, said that Bates was also asked by the governor to resign even though Bates told the committee earlier Wednesday that he stepped down because he accomplished what he wanted to accomplish and it was time to let others take over.
According to the most recent audit, the 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.
Rep. Laura Devlin, R-Fairfield, asked Matthews why he stayed in a hotel in Mystic when the trade association meeting was in Darien.
“There’s nothing nefarious here,” Matthews said. “From time to time because of my stroke I would stay in a hotel.”
He said he hasn’t been given an opportunity to look at a calendar and offer up an explanation, but he would stay at a hotel if he had a late meeting and an early meeting in the state. However, he was unable to give any more information about the two specific stays highlighted in the audit.
He said when he was put on leave he no longer had access to his calendar.
Bates said many of the policy deficiencies reported by auditors in the first audit should have been corrected by now.
Auditor John Geragosian said there were only two months between the first audit and the second audit so they didn’t expect all the recommendations to have been implemented before the second audit. He said there’s usually a year to 18 months between audits of quasi-public agencies.
Office of Policy and Management Secretary Melissa McCaw said they expect to have a new executive director in place by July and many of the policies and financial controls the board failed to adopt in its first three years could be approved as soon as next month.
McCaw said the board also has adopted some parameters around the use of legal services and a proposed meals, travel and entertainment policy will be presented to the board later this month.
She said they are also working with the staff on a QuickBooks scanning capability so the auditors will be able to match up receipts with the accounts.