House Speaker Matt Ritter tapped a longtime business and education leader Saturday to replace one of the Connecticut Port Authority officials cited in a state ethics ruling.
Ritter named Lawrence McHugh, president of the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce since 1983 and the chairman of the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees for nearly a decade, to replace Donald Frost of Fairfield on the port authority’s board of directors.
The speaker said he was dismayed Friday to learn for the first time that Frost — who had been appointed to the authority in 2016 by then-Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey — was one of the officials at the quasi-public entity who had accepted illegal gifts from Seabury Maritime, a consultant hired to help find a developer for the state pier in New London.
Frost’s term expired in 2020, but he continued to serve on the authority since a replacement had not been named.
“I’ve never met nor spoken to the gentleman, but our office certainly was not alerted to this situation” until Friday, Ritter said, referring to a story posted Friday by WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, which had obtained an affidavit identifying Frost. “I just think it’s time for a fresh start.”
The Office of State Ethics announced in early July that it had fined Seabury $10,000 for providing more than $3,000 in food and gifts —including hockey tickets and an overnight stay at a Greenwich club — to Connecticut Port Authority officials in 2017 and 2019.
The ethics announcement didn’t identify the authority officials involved in the matter. But WSHU reported Friday that according to an affidavit filed by Seabury executive Jeffrey Erickson, recipients included Frost, former port authority Executive Director Evan Matthews and his spouse; and former authority board member Henry Juan III of Greenwich and his spouse.
Matthews and Juan could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Frost told the CT Mirror that he accepted a dinner provided in August 2017 by Seabury, but “it was not related to CPA at all.”
Frost, who is active in numerous maritime organizations, said he had assumed the meal was related to a proposal to have Seabury fund an academic leadership post at the State University of New York Maritime College.
According to Frost’s resume, which is listed on the authority’s website, he has a bachelor of science degree in marine transportation from the university.
But the dinner turned out to be nothing more than a social occasion, Frost said, adding that neither the academic post nor port authority matters were discussed. “It was purely social,” he added.
Only after the 2017 dinner, having recalled that Matthews was in attendance, Frost said, he began to wonder whether the meal had some connection to port authority matters.
State law “prohibits any person from knowingly giving, directly or indirectly, gifts to a public official or state employee when that person is doing business or seeking to do business with that public official or state employee’s agency or department.”
The ethics commission fine imposed in July was directly only at Seabury. But Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the ethics office, also said it’s the agency’s policy not to comment on whether other related investigations could be in the works.
The authority hired Seabury in May 2018 to help with the search for an operator of the state pier in New London. The new operator would help transform the pier into the staging area for a major, offshore wind-to-energy project.
The authority issued a $700,000 payment to Seabury that included a $523,000 “success” or reward fee — and that happened three months after Juan, who was a managing director with Seabury, had resigned from the authority board.
The State Contracting Standards Board adopted a report in February that compared this success fee with the “finder’s fees” the General Assembly banned more than two decades ago. That ban followed a scandal in the late 1990s that sent then-state Treasurer Paul Silvester to prison.
David Kooris, who became chairman of the port authority’s Board of Directors in July 2019, also could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The New London pier project, priced three years ago at $93 million, also has been criticized for several cost hikes which now place the price tag at more than $255 million. Connecticut’s share now stands at $178 million, with $77.5 million coming from private partners.
Ritter praised McHugh, who led the UConn Board of Trustees from 2009 through 2017, for his wealth of knowledge on a variety off issues. During McHugh’s tenure, the state’s flagship university hired its first female president, Susan Herbst, launched a historic bioscience partnership with The Jackson Laboratory in Farmington and relocated its Hartford campus to the capital city’s downtown area.
McHugh, a Republican, had led the governing board for the regional state university system prior to his tenure at UConn.
“He is truly one of the better public servants our state has seen in a long time,” Ritter said.