Is the governor's wind deal for New London in jeopardy?
I first learned the news that the $93 million deal to transform New London into a wind turbine assembly port is not yet even signed, in an email from Kevin Blacker, a vocal critic of the Connecticut Port Authority, which is brokering the wind port project.
Blacker, a 33-year-old farmer from Noank who has taken a keen interest in the port development, sent an email to a group of Connecticut reporters on Tuesday, conveying rumors that the state's deal with the wind companies is not yet signed and noting that an agenda item for the authority board to ratify the deal was withdrawn at the last minute before a meeting this week. The deal was celebrated during a ceremonial visit to the city by Gov. Ned Lamont in May.
The email to reporters also repeated some of Blacker's frequent complaints about the authority, which he suggests has inappropriately hired associates of Scott Bates of Stonington, the deputy secretary of state and former port authority board chairman, and his wife, Lisa Tepper Bates, an official in the Lamont Administration. Bates stepped down as authority chairman in June.
Incredibly, Evan Matthews, executive director of the port authority, who was copied on the Tuesday email to reporters, responded, including everyone on the original email chain, with a blistering attack on Blacker, saying he would welcome the attorney general and state police to "investigate your escalating rhetoric and innuendo of violence against the public servants who work for the CPA."
Matthews began the email addressed to Blacker by asserting "this is not the first time you have threatened the staff with violence, and I'm growing increasingly concerned about your obsession with the operations of the Connecticut Port Authority."
Yikes. The Tuesday email from Blacker was, as always, straightforward and polite, sent to a large number of recipients, not the least bit threatening. It certainly had no suggestion of violence.
It turns out, I learned after tracking Matthews down Wednesday, Blacker was spot on in his Tuesday email to the media.
Indeed, the port authority director confirmed, negotiations still are underway for the deal that was sure sold to the public as done when the governor announced it with so much pomp in May.
As usual, Matthews was secretive and uncooperative in explaining what the divisive issues are that remain to be settled.
"We are continuing to negotiate for the best interests of the state," is all he would say about the stalled deal.
When I asked him about the port authority employee who Blacker identified as someone who used to work with Bates, Matthews confirmed that Bates associate Andrew Lavigne was hired as a $50-an-hour consultant without any competitive RFP process and then hired as a full-time employee at more than $90,000 a year.
Matthews said Lavigne was hired as a consultant as an "emergency measure" because Matthews was sick and hospitalized at the time and the authority needed someone quickly.
Blacker also noted in his Tuesday email to reporters that the authority hired a company run by someone who once worked at the same agency in Washington as Tepper Bates and questioned whether "it played any role in her hiring."
When I asked Matthews for instances of Blacker threatening anyone at the port authority with violence, he sent a copy of a July 3 email that Blacker had sent to his lawyer. Matthews was copied on it.
"Dear Mike, This is the one. Go for the throat. I recommend we submit an FOI to CPA ...." Blacker wrote to his lawyer.
That was it, Blacker's use of the rhetorical, go for the throat, or the jugular, in an email to his lawyer, discussing their legal strategy, was the basis for Matthews' concluding that state police should investigate the port authority critic. Did he really think Blacker was directing his Mystic lawyer to slash the throats of port authority employees?
Matthews told me he could look through his email for other examples of threats by Blacker. I asked him to, but never heard back from him.
The port authority director continued a personal attack on Blacker in our telephone conversation Wednesday.
"There is something off about him. He either has autism or there is something about him that is anti-social," Matthews said.
I've met Blacker once or twice and he strikes me as charming, bright and thoroughly committed to stopping what he sees as a misuse of the port in the making. It is Blacker and his determined bird-dogging of the port authority that has helped keep the public informed, even as the agency has tried to work in the shadows.
Blacker got interested because, as a farmer, he was developing a concept for using boulders and big rocks that clog fields as material for the coastal fortifications being planned against sea-level rise. He envisioned shipping them from New London. He worries that devoting the New London pier to only wind turbine assembly will harm the regional economy that uses the port for other purposes.
I am sure that an aggressive critic who is following your agency closely is frustrating, but it goes with the turf.
For Matthews to publicly attack Blacker with personal criticism and suggest the police and attorney general investigate him is chilling.
I would suggest it makes him ineligible to run a publicly funded agency.
Gov. Lamont, who led us to believe this was a done wind deal, should do something about a port authority run amok, with the director threatening to sic the police on critics.
Is this the new Connecticut that Lamont envisions?
But an unintimidated Blacker put it best in a Wednesday "Dear Evan" email he sent Matthews and copied to others.
"Holding the government liable for their actions is an American right and duty. I have a right to free speech, a right to think and act freely and creatively. I've done so peacefully and I intend to continue. I welcome any discussion with the attorney general or state police."
This is the opinion of David Collins.