CMEEC founding attorney disappointed in Kentucky Derby spending

For much of the final year of his life, Robert “Bob” Sussler pored over news articles that revealed more and more details of the controversial trips to the Kentucky Derby hosted and funded by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative for dozens of cooperative officials, municipal leaders and business associates from throughout the state.

“I created CMEEC,” Sussler said in an interview with The Day several weeks before he died on Dec. 4 at age 89 in New London. He said he wrote the legislation that created the electric utility cooperative as a way for local municipal electric utilities to have greater buying power when procuring electricity and transmission for their customers.

Sussler, of New London, long retired from his career as an attorney specializing in utility law and real estate and at times serving as a political adviser, contacted The Day this fall to express a mixture of anger and disappointment regarding the Kentucky Derby controversy by the agency he helped create. He had compiled extensive handwritten notes to make his points.

“I’ve been reading what’s going on now, and the difference from what the intent was and how it’s going on now,” Sussler said. “We had an understanding of an entirely different method, and what they could or couldn’t do. The idea was to get cheaper electricity for the cities.”

The controversy erupted in November 2016, when it was revealed that CMEEC hosted lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for four years from 2013 through 2016 for dozens of CMEEC staff, board members, their families and local municipal leaders. Combined, the trips cost a total of $1.02 million.

The 2016 trip — costing $342,330 for 44 participants, including a private jet, Derby tickets and all meals for four days — led to findings of ethics code violations in Norwich and Groton and changes to the statute Sussler helped write back in 1975 to increase state oversight of CMEEC and a prohibition on future so-called retreats.

Sussler described the situation in the mid-1970s, when electricity costs were skyrocketing. He was approached by then Norwich Public Utilities General Manager Richard DesRoches, Groton Utilities manager Alex Chisholm and Jewett City Department of Public Utilities Director Joseph Dudek.

“(They) came to me and said, ‘How do we get power at the wholesale level so we can deliver it to our residents at competitive rates or even lower?’” Sussler recalled. “I said, ‘We can’t as individual companies. You’re going to have to get something with competitive purchasing power with more customers.'”

The only way to do that was to get legislation passed allowing municipal utilities to form a cooperative, Sussler said.

“The name we’re picking is to show what we’re doing,” he said, “so people in the future would know what we’re doing.”

Sussler envisioned that the cooperative would have minimal staff needed to shop the complex realm of power production and transmission and secure contracts for set periods of time for the municipal ratepayers. He also envisioned that the CMEEC leaders would be paid salaries on par with municipal utility leaders.

“We would need power procurement people, have monthly meetings with towns to go over what they’re doing,” Sussler said. “It didn’t need a staff to act like a commercial utility with salaries of executives.”

Sussler praised Maurice “Moe” Scully, who was hired as CMEEC's CEO in 1979. Scully, formerly of Gales Ferry, retired in 2010, but stayed on as a consultant for a year in a transition when current CEO Drew Rankin was hired.

“Moe was the type of person who made sure he knew more than the people he was working for,” Sussler said. “And he did. He was paid a salary like you’d get to run a municipal utility, like DesRoches or Chisolm, in keeping with normal salary.”

According to CMEEC budget information released in November, Rankin’s salary is $325,000, while current NPU General Manager John Bilda’s salary is $190,000. 

Working for 15 years as CMEEC’s legal adviser, “the only pay I got was the normal pay I got as an attorney,” Sussler said.

While Sussler dismissed CMEEC officials’ defense of the Kentucky Derby trips as a valuable experience to build trust and a bond among board members from the various member municipal utilities, the attorney said he knew the value of socializing.

The launching of CMEEC wasn’t smooth. Connecticut Light & Power, now Eversource, filed a complex lawsuit to try to block the legislation. Sussler had considerable experience as an attorney for private utility companies as well, so he understood CL&P’s position.

Sussler figured he would have to get to know then-CL&P President William Ellis to negotiate a deal. He invited Ellis to lunch and the two developed a genuine friendship. They visited each other’s homes and Sussler invited Ellis’ son, Ben, onto his boat to pull lobster pots. Sussler gave the lobsters to Ben Ellis.

The two negotiated transmission costs, but started with very divergent figures on what should be a reasonable rate.

“He was high and I was low,” Sussler said. “Bill and I had to bring the figures together. After CMEEC was created, Bill and I had lunch together. He said ‘Tell your people we’re going to do it from honesty.’”

The lawsuit was settled in 1980.

Sussler did object to the excess of the Kentucky Derby trips. In comparison, he recalled an example from the early planning stage of the cooperative. The New York attorney hired to secure bonds for the group to purchase power wanted to explain the complexities of the process to the eastern Connecticut utilities’ representatives. The attorney asked that they come to New York City for a dinner meeting.

NPU’s DesRoches intervened, Sussler said.

“Dick DesRoches said ‘that’s too expensive,’” Sussler recalled. “‘Let’s have the dinner up here in the Norwich-New London area, where we could have the same food at a third the price.’”

“It’s not the socializing that’s wrong, it’s the general attitude,” Sussler said. “The cost. So the Kentucky Derby would never have come up for a discussion. Realize you’re small. ... We had what we call a yardstick of appropriateness. You’re a nonprofit entity.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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