David Collins: Connecticut Port Authority Chairman Kooris rebuffed auditors probing $750,000 'success' fee

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Jul. 22—Connecticut Attorney General William Tong is still actively investigating, his office confirmed this week, a whistleblower complaint about what became of a $523,000 "success" fee paid last year to a consultant of the Connecticut Port Authority, a company that employed a former port authority board member as its managing director.

The original invoice for the success fee, at the time the whistleblower complained, was $750,000.

So it was alarming to me when I came across an email, obtained through an FOI request, in which authority Chairman David Kooris wrote to the governor's office last March suggesting that state auditors be denied access to the success fee invoice, as the auditors reviewed the whistleblower complaint about it.

The auditors eventually referred the whistleblower complaint about the success fee to the attorney general, evidently after they were denied access to the invoice.

Kooris wrote at the time to Paul Mounds, chief of staff to the governor: "They've now asked for the invoice (that we said is not final). I'm not sure how vetting an active invoice is an audit issue and I'm thinking about pushing back."

I didn't see a response from Mounds. The governor has continued to refuse to supply some two dozen requested emails from the time between his office and Kooris, a denial claiming exemption from FOI law that is part of a pending complaint before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission.

But I have to assume that Mounds responded, yes, withhold the invoice, since neither he, Kooris, nor an official spokesperson for the governor denied it when I asked this week whether it was withheld from auditors with the governor's office's consent, as the chairman had suggested.

Indeed, Kooris pointedly said in his response this week that all "final documents" eventually were shared with state auditors and noted that the invoice requested by auditors was being contested at the time and "hadn't yet been paid."

Kooris took the position in his email to Mounds that the auditors were not entitled to see an invoice that the port authority planned to contest.

"I don't want to set a precedent that the state auditors are performing the same kind of financial oversight that (Office Of Policy and Management) does," Kooris wrote in March to Mounds, explaining why he didn't want to hand over the requested invoice.

This is outrageous.

The auditors were not then conducting one of their periodic audits of the port authority, as the agency chairman must have known. Instead, they were conducting a review of a whistleblower complaint, as Connecticut law requires them to do.

For the port authority chairman, leading an agency already long mired in scandal, to refuse to cooperate with auditors, with tacit or possibly explicit permission from the governor's chief of staff, should alarm every lawmaker in the state.

It's time to shut down the port authority, a rogue arm of the Lamont administration, a virtual scandal machine.

After all, at the very least, the invoice at that time was a public record, whether the port authority had agreed to pay it or not. Any citizen should have been able to request it if they knew about it, never mind state auditors carrying out their statutory responsibility, looking into a questionable bonus payment made to a company run by a former agency board member.

What else may Kooris have been hiding?

Auditors also asked Kooris last March about a Bruins game that two port authority staffers, including its executive director, attended with officials from Seabury Capital, the company paid the success fee. Kooris said this week that Seabury was reimbursed for the May 2019 game expenses by the staffers in July of that year, a timetable that sounds to me more like retroactively covering your tracks than paying your way at the time.

Kooris revealed in his response this week that the original port authority invoice for the success fee was a cool $750,000. The agency agreed to pay the reduced amount in July 2020, long after the probe into the whistleblower complaint had been initiated by the state auditors who eventually referred it to the attorney general.

Kooris didn't say in his March 2020 email to the chief of staff that the agency wasn't going to pay it in full.

"We're awaiting further backup and will negotiate to ensure we agree on the fee calculation," he wrote.

The governor today is expected to ask the Bond Commission to approve another $50 million to cover overruns for the scandal-ridden port authority's $235 million remake of State Pier on behalf of rich utilities Ørsted and Eversource.

The utilities' share of the overruns for a project being done for their benefit, one originally estimated to cost $93 million? Zero, zip, nothing.

This must be one of the biggest corporate giveaways in Connecticut history, from a governor who promised us a debt diet. It's a giant subsidy of a commercial project that doesn't need it, given the above-market rates that Connecticut electric customers eventually will pay for the wind-driven electricity it creates.

Lawmakers? Helloooo? Where are you?

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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