The new replacement for the Connecticut Port Authority board member who received illegal gifts has drawn scrutiny.
State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, said he’s concerned the board now has even less maritime experience than before — with Donald Frost, the board’s vice chairman, being replaced by Lawrence McHugh, the president of the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce and a former chairman of the UConn Board of Trustees.
“I’m concerned we’re replacing maritime experience with, you know, political experience and business experience,” Formica said, “and I guess if anyone can do the job and pick up on that it would be McHugh, but I have some concerns about that.”
McHugh’s appointment to the Connecticut Port Authority needs consent from both chambers of the state General Assembly.
Speaker of the House Matt Ritter took swift action to make the replacement after a WSHU report identified Frost received illegal gifts from a vendor seeking business. “I just think it’s time for a fresh start,” he told the CT Mirror on Saturday.
A Seabury LLC executive hosted a dinner party with Frost in attendance, according to a sworn affidavit that WSHU obtained through a Freedom of Information request. It was part of a state ethics investigation, which fined Seabury $10,000 for its illegal gifts in July.
Formica and Senate Republican Leader Kevin Kelly were notified last week in a letter that Evan Matthews, the port authority’s former executive director, and current employee Andrew Lavigne accepted hockey tickets, food, drinks and an overnight stay at a Greenwich club. The affidavit also revealed former board member Henry Juan and his wife attended the dinner party with the Matthews and Frost in August 2017.
In an interview with WSHU on Monday, Frost said the matter was not as cut and dried as it appears.
“The problems are political, they’re not physical,” Frost said. “And the fact that the word here is gifts versus something entirely different and within the context of the business that I have been in, there was no way I could understand anything other than that.”
Frost echoed concerns by critics that there were many flaws when the port authority was created. He said experts like himself with deep maritime experience were given no real voice on the board. He also blamed previous board chairs for keeping information from them about decision making.
The quasi-public agency will review Frost’s voting history on Seabury-related contracts, according to David Kooris, the current port authority chairman.
WSHU obtained the minutes of a May 2018 special meeting where board members approved allowing Matthews to enter into a consulting agreement with Seabury.
The New York-based vendor was selected to find a new harbor management company for the redevelopment of the State Pier in New London, which is planned to be a hub for the offshore wind industry. Frost and two other board members abstained from the vote.
Seabury is also now under investigation by the state attorney general’s office for a “success fee” of over $500,000 that was awarded by the port authority for tapping Gateway for the job.
Future of the board
According to the Connecticut Port Authority, many of the terms of its board members will expire soon.
Ritter, the speaker of the House, told WSHU on Monday that the state General Assembly has talked of reviewing board members and requirements for positions in Connecticut agencies since as early as 2021.
“The feeling was the port authority was going through a lot of turmoil,” Ritter said.
The port authority has been embattled for years.
Earlier this year, the State Contracting Standards Board found the quasi-public agency lacked the authority to launch a public-private partnership tied to development of a major offshore wind energy project with Eversource and Ørsted in 2019. The state standards board also questioned the success fee rewarded to Seabury, which is under investigation by the state attorney general.
Three years ago, the Office of Policy and Management took over the financial review of the port authority after a former board chair resigned for fiscal mismanagement. That cast light over the years of the ballooning cost to redevelop the State Pier — which was overseen by Kosta Diamantis, the former state deputy budget secretary who is now under a federal investigation for his alleged misdealings of state school construction disbursement.
In the meantime, two more executive directors have either resigned or been ousted — including Evan Matthews.
“There was a general feeling from the legislature and the governor and folks from that area that they were going to try and have some continuity on the board, some stability. [Frost] was valued by some for his experience in this field, and we agreed to revisit it after the session 2022,” Ritter said. “I believe we would have ultimately replaced him … but this expedited that process.”
Kevin Blacker, a longtime port authority critic, said many of the board members’ terms will expire soon — and it’s time to wipe the slate clean.
“Just shows when they want to do something, they fully can. Mr. Frost had maritime experience despite bad judgment. They replaced him with somebody with — as far as I can see — no maritime experience,” Blacker said. “The entire board — anyone who was present during the time of all of the previous problems — needs to be replaced, and there’s many of them.”
This story initially appeared on wshu.org.