Lawmakers are told port authority lacked accounting records

Lawmakers are told port authority lacked accounting records
FILE - In this April 22, 2011 file photo, men fish from a pier in the Port of New Haven, Conn., as cargo vessels are docked at rear. Connecticut lawmakers have scheduled a forum on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019, to learn more about the finances and management practices at the Port Authority, which has come under scrutiny after paying a former board chairwoman's daughter $3,000 for office art. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut lawmakers were told Tuesday that the Connecticut Port Authority, which has come under scrutiny for paying a former board chairwoman’s daughter $3,000 for office art, operated for a period of time without accounting records detailing bank transactions or formal written policies addressing personnel practices to the use of surplus funds.

John Rasimas, deputy state auditor, outlined for members of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee a recent audit for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 that showed the quasi-public agency did not maintain the “basic elements” of internal accounting procedures.

“We found that the Connecticut Port Authority did not maintain accounting records detailing the transactions and balances of its bank accounts during that audit period,” he said, adding how the authority could not show auditors that its records matched the amounts shown on the authority’s bank statements. A second audit is currently underway.

Lawmakers held a daylong hearing on the finances and management practices at the port authority, which began operating in 2016, charged with marketing and making investments in the state’s three deep water ports and small harbors to maximize their full potential. It’s one of more than a dozen quasi-public agencies, which are state-chartered but privately managed organizations created to take on public missions. They’re considered more nimble than a traditional state agency.

Most recently, the port authority has played a key role in Connecticut’s push to develop an offshore wind industry. The authority and the new private operator of the state pier in New London recently partnered with Bay State Wind to redevelop the pier into a state-of-the-art facility that can accommodate offshore wind components.

Besides the auditors, lawmakers Tuesday heard from representatives of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, including Department of Economic and Community Development Deputy Commissioner David Kooris, who Lamont has appointed to temporarily oversee the authority. Kooris said he is working to review the “authority’s finances with a fine-toothed comb” and is bringing in an external auditor for another review.

Kooris tried to assure lawmakers that he has determined port authority staff members attempted to pursue “best practices” from other quasi-public agencies, but those recommendations were not followed through by the authority’s top leadership.

But Republican legislators expressed disappointment that several previous port authority officials didn’t attend Tuesday’s forum, including former board chairwoman and Old Lyme First Selectman Bonnie Reemsnyder, suggesting they be subpoenaed to testify.

“It is essential for government transparency that they attend and be able to answer questions from the committee, otherwise this hearing will be unproductive,” the committee’s two GOP leaders wrote in a letter to the Democratic chairmen. Sen. Carlo Leone, D-Stamford, the committee’s co-chairman, said lawmakers are waiting to see if those officials ultimately submit written statements.

Republicans on Thursday singled out Scott Bates, a former authority board chairman who currently serves as deputy secretary of the state. Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano of North Haven called on Democratic Secretary of the State Denise Merrill to temporarily remove Bates from his position until “we have a full accountability” of what happened with questionable purchases, contracts and employment decisions. “You ought not have an individual associated with such significant breaches of the public trust associated with one of the most sacred objects of public trust, the public vote,” Fasano said.

House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby called on Bates to resign from his current position. Bates, who is on vacation, did not attend Tuesday’s forum.

“I think that he has lost the trust of the people of this state and he does not even belong in that job,” she said.

Stephanie Sponzo, a spokeswoman for Merrill, called it “regrettable” that Republican lawmakers “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.” She said Merrill has “every confidence in her agency’s ability” to carry out the mission of election security.