Fiascoes prompt Connecticut scrutiny of quasi-public agencies

Register now

Troubles at the Connecticut Port Authority are prompting broader discussions about irregularities across the state’s quasi-public agencies.

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, cited a series of personnel and other fiascoes at the authority and the Connecticut Lottery Corp. in calling for a review of the 14 organizations while Republican leaders insist on greater transparency.

“The recent developments at both of these entities have caused great alarm and compromised the important achievements by them and all of our state’s quasi-public agencies,” Lamont said in a letter to top lawmakers.

Lamont’s chief of staff, Ryan Drajewicz, and chief operating officer, Paul Mounds, will run point on the review, according to the governor, who called the Port Authority upheaval “a sideshow and a distraction.”

The authority, established in 2014, markets and promotes development at the state’s three deepwater ports — Bridgeport, New Haven and New London along Long Island Sound — and coastal harbors and rivers.

Its board of directors chairwoman, Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder, resigned under pressure late last month, only five weeks into her tenure, amid reports that the authority purchased $3,000 of her daughter’s paintings for its Old Saybrook headquarters.

Days earlier, the authority also placed executive director Evan Matthews on administrative leave without elaborating. The impetus was "comments made to the press that were unbecoming of a public-sector leader," authority acting board chairman David Kooris said at a day-long legislative transportation committee hearing in Hartford on Tuesday.

In addition, board member Scott Bates, the former board chairman and current deputy secretary of state, resigned from the board. Gerri Lewis, the authority’s office manager and ethics compliance officer, was dismissed.

Republican leaders were upset over the absence of Reemsnyder, Matthews, Bates and Lewis from Tuesday’s hearing.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, called for subpoenas. She also called on Bates' removal from the secretary of state's office.

“There are a lot of things that don’t look good and don’t smell good,” she told reporters. “We have people buying pictures, on an iPhone, no less, or hiring an interior designer at twice the market. Why do they need an interior designer, to begin with?"

Klarides also referenced "borderline threats" and promises of jobs — allegedly by Matthews, according to New London newspaper The Day — to stave off criticism.

"There's apparently a new installment of the 'Housewives of New London' and this is what it is. There's drama, there's questions, there's bad decisions, bad judgment," Klarides said.

Transportation committee chairman, Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, said subpoenas could materialize later. “It is not our goal to start with that as an opening salvo."

Deputy State Auditor John Rasimas told lawmakers an investigation revealed problems at the Port Authority including record-keeping and compliance. He said his department has advanced its audit of the authority for 2018 and 2019 after a whistleblower in May filed a complaint alleging mismanagement and misuse of funds.

Lamont officials are reviewing a term sheet for a $93 million investment at State Pier in New London for a major wind generation project planned by Ørsted North America and Eversource in federal waters beyond Long Island Sound.

"We want to keep pace on the wind deal," Kooris said Tuesday. He is also the deputy commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

"We're confident that offshore wind development is the best way to achieve the highest and best use of the State Pier facility," he said. "The plan will transform the Port of New London from an underperforming break-bulk cargo facility into a premier hub for this renewable-generation industry."

According to Kooris, further details about the project will emerge on Sept. 17.

Under the public-private partnership, which Lamont announced in May, Ørsted and Eversource will commit $35 million in new capital for the State Pier, including $2.5 million to the CPA to offset operational costs during the three-year development project.

The state will commit to $35.5 million including $25.5 million from the Connecticut Port Authority, and $10 million in new funding from the Department of Economic and Community Development through the Manufacturing Assistance Act.

Ørsted and Eversource had already committed $22.5 million.

The lottery system — while financially successful and having returned $370 million to the state’s general fund for fiscal 2019 — has been immersed in its own controversies.

A scandal under which retailers allegedly manipulated machines to print only winning tickets in its 5 Card Cash instant game prompted chief executive Anne Noble and her interim successor, Frank Farricker, to quit in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

The Hartford Courant reported last month that the lottery’s former interim CEO and current vice president, Chelsea Turner, was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into her handling of a personnel investigation.

The Capital Region Development Authority and the Connecticut Green Bank have also been the subjects of critical state audits.

CRDA, according to a report, spent $4 million of bond funds for the reconstruction of Dillon Stadium before City of Hartford entered into an agreement with a professional sports team, which its own board and the State Bond Commission require.

Another auditors report questioned Green Bank severance agreements, citing payments equal to 26 weeks of salary for all three terminated employees, totaling $148,526, without board of director approval. The audit also said the Green Bank provided a transition agreement enabling one employee to remain on the payroll until vesting for retirement benefits.

Asked by one reporter whether Connecticut should “blow up” its quasi-public agencies, Klarides replied: “The problem with what we're dealing with now is, we’re putting things in place and hoping for the best.

"It doesn't matter what it's called. If we can't see what their budget is, what's the difference?"

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.