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 appointed Lawrence McHugh, president of the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce since 1983 and 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 to learn Friday for the first time that Frost, who had been appointed to the authority in 2016 by then-spokesman J. Brendan Sharkey, was one of the officials at the quasi-public entity that had accepted gifts il legal of Seabury Maritime, a consultant hired to help find a developer for the New London State Pier.
Frost’s term expired in 2020, but he continued to exercise authority as no replacement had been named.
“I’ve never met or spoken to the gentleman, but our office certainly wasn’t alerted to this situation” until Friday, Ritter said, referring to a story published Friday. by WSHU Public Radio in Fairfieldthat he had obtained an affidavit identifying Frost. “I think it’s time to start over.”
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 a night at a club in Greenwich. to Connecticut Port Authority officials in 2017 and 2019.
The ethics announcement did not identify the authority officials involved in the matter. But WSHU reported Friday that, according to an affidavit filed by Seabury executive Jeffrey Erickson, the recipients included Frost, former Port Authority Executive Director Evan Matthews and his spouse; and the former member of the council of authority Henry John 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 offered 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 lunch was related to a proposal to fund Seabury for an academic leadership position at the State University of New York Maritime College.
Seconds Frost’s curriculum vitaelisted on the authority’s website, holds a bachelor of science degree in shipping from the university.
But the dinner was little more than a social occasion, Frost said, adding that neither the academic position nor Port Authority matters were discussed. “It was purely social,” he added.
It wasn’t until after the 2017 dinner, after remembering Matthews was in attendance, Frost said, that he began to wonder if the meal had any connection to Port Authority matters.
State law “prohibits any person from knowingly, directly or indirectly, giving gifts to a public official or employee of the state when that person is doing business or intends to do business with that public official or the agency or department of that public official or state employee”.
The ethics commission fine levied in July was only directly on Seabury. But Peter Lewandowski, executive director of the ethics office, also said the agency’s policy is not to comment on whether other related investigations might be underway.
The authority hired Seabury in May 2018 to assist in the search for a state dock operator in New London. The new operator would help transform the pier into the staging area for a major offshore wind energy project.
The authority issued a $700,000 payment to Seabury that included a $523,000 “success” fee, or reward, and that came three months after Juan, who was Seabury’s chief executive, resigned from the board of authority
The State Contracting Standards Board adopted a report in February that compared that hit fee to the “finder’s fees” that the General Assembly banned more than two decades ago. That ban followed a scandal in the late 1990s that sent 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, has also come under fire for several cost overruns that now put 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 to 2017, for his vast knowledge on a variety of issues. During McHugh’s tenure, the state’s flagship university hired its first female president, Susan Herbst, launched a landmark bioscience partnership with The Jackson Laboratory in Farmington and moved its campus from Hartford to downtown .
McHugh, a Republican, had led the governing board of the regional state university system before his tenure at UConn.
“He is truly one of the best public servants our state has seen in a long time,” Ritter said.