A rich culture of coverups at candidate Lamont's port authority

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Aug. 6—Corruption always begets cover-ups, and, boy, they have been working hard at them this election season at Gov. Ned Lamont's scandal-plagued Connecticut Port Authority.

Port Authority Chairman David Kooris finally disclosed, in the wake of demands from two Republican senators, weeks after they asked, the names of two authority employees who took illegal gifts from a company that ultimately secured a contract from the authority so lucrative it remains under investigation by the Connecticut attorney general.

But Kooris, Lamont's hand-picked port authority chairman and ad hoc scandal manager, said in his July 29 letter to the senators that he didn't know and he didn't reveal any intention to find out which unnamed board member was implicated, along with the two employees, for taking gifts for which the Office of State Ethics recently fined the contractor $10,000.

Kooris said they asked current board members if any of them took the gifts. Kooris didn't say so in the letter, but he implied they all reported no and that was the end of his investigation into the matter.

Then on Friday, WSHU public radio, reporting from its review of an ethics investigation affidavit obtained through a Freedom of Information request, identified the gift-taking board member as Don Frost, vice chairman.

This was commendable reporting by Brian Scott-Smith for WSHU, and it illustrates the enduring culture of covering up corruption at the agency.

How could an independent reporter get to the bottom of the illegal gift taking and identify the current board member who was a recipient, when the authority itself, with all its resources at hand, suggested it couldn't.

This is after all, the quasi public agency, which, under Lamont's watch, has offered hush money to keep a departing employee from talking to the press and tried to stonewall state auditors' investigation of a whistleblower complaint.

The ethics office, in announcing its fine against the contractor in early July, citing confidentiality laws, said it would not identify the employees or board member who took the illegal gifts or say whether say whether separate actions against them are planned.

The port authority's unwillingness to investigate which board member was wined and dined by a contractor that eventually landed a sweet deal with a controversial half-million-dollar-success fee should be considered in the context of the agency's general cess pool of corruption.

After all, we now know one of the two employees who the ethics office cited in July for taking illegal gifts was the former agency's executive director, already implicated in scores of financial misdeeds, from hiring his wife's friend to decorate the port authority offices to excessive personal use of the agency's credit card.

He slunk off into the horizon, never charged or disciplined.

The other employee implicated in the ethics office action in July is Andrew Lavigne, the person with zero experience in port management who landed his lucrative job based on his affiliations with former port authority Chairman Scott Bates.

Lavigne, who Kooris confirmed in his letter to the senators was never disciplined for taking the illegal gifts, is still employed at the agency.

Kooris noted in his letter that Lavigne ultimately paid the contractor back. But it was well after the acceptable time threshold for preventing an ethics violation. The approaching sirens were evidently already wailing in the distance.

What is most incredible — if this weren't the deep port authority swamp, you might not believe it — Lavigne was designated last year the agency's ethics compliance officer, liaison to the Office of State Ethics.

Not only was Lavigne, hired as a friend of the former chairman's, never disciplined for taking illegal gifts but he was put in charge of monitoring and implementing ethics policies for the scandal-plagued agency. You can't make this stuff up.

Even more astounding, the board member making the motion to appoint Lavigne ethics compliance officer was John Johnson, who has continued to routinely vote on matters related to State Pier in New London despite a finding from the Office of State Ethics that he shouldn't, since he owns property nearby.

It's a blatant ethics violation ignored by the agency and apparently the governor, who could easily replace Johnson, whose term has expired, with a fresh appointment.

And then — this would be funny if it weren't so pathetic — Lavigne was the agency spokesman designated earlier this month to talk about the enforcement action by the ethics office, an illegal violation he must have known he was involved in.

"Authority stakeholders should be reassured that matters from the past will be thoroughly and transparently investigated," Lavigne told the Connecticut Examiner last month, as the agency and he himself remained mum about his own involvement, exhibiting no transparency at all.

This is how transparency and ethics compliance work in Ned Lamont's Connecticut.

Ulysses Hammond, the latest executive director of the port authority, said in response to the July fines by the ethics office that they relate to the agency's troubled past.

But that's not at all true.

We now know that the port authority hired a contractor that now admits providing illegal gifts to employees and a current influential board member — let's call them bribes — before being awarded a contract state regulators say was improper.

The controversial contract went to a company that employed another agency board member, who quit his affiliation with the port authority just before the lucrative deal was sealed. That unsavory, troubling link is being investigated by the attorney general.

And the original answer to the latest ethics charges from leadership of Lamont's port authority: Nothing to see here. It's all in the past.

I give Republican Sens. Paul Formica and Kevin Kelly enormous credit for trying to get answers from Gov. Lamont and Chairman Kooris about the latest troubling allegations of corruption at this agency, which is also the subject of an ongoing federal grand jury probe.

Where are the other outraged lawmakers? Isn't this an election season?

Are Connecticut Democrats really that safe and smug that they can let corruption like this smolder out in the open?

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com