Follow FOI order, open utility co-op books

What is the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative trying to hide?

The agency most of you had never heard of was thrust into the local consciousness about one year ago when stories first broke that the cooperative had for four years bankrolled over-the-top junkets to the Kentucky Derby. Recipients were top executives at the municipal utilities that own and supposedly direct the operations of the cooperative. Family and influential people were taken along for the trip, 44 people in all in 2016. The total cost of the trips came to $1.02 million.

As noted in Thursday’s editorial, the process of hearing ethics complaints filed in Norwich and Groton — Norwich Public Utilities and Groton Utilities are two members of the cooperative — has been grinding forward for months, with only one penalty paid so far, despite multiple findings of ethical misconduct.

At the same time CMEEC has worked to impede efforts to get access to its financial records.

The cooperative lobbied against state legislation demanding greater transparency and improved oversight of the nonprofit. It waged a legal fight to try to block this newspaper’s efforts to get at its budgetary information.

These are not the actions of an agency with nothing to hide. In light of the Derby scandal, the CMEEC board of directors, made up of top executives from the municipal utilities that co-own it, should have ordered that its books be thrown open to demonstrate that while the trips were a mistake, they were not indicative of agency operations generally.

Instead the board has followed the lead of CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin in trying to stonewall at every turn.

But time is running out. There will be an accounting.

On Wednesday, acting on a complaint filed by The Day, the state Freedom of Information Commission voted unanimously in ordering CMEEC to publicly release its operating budget, including staff salaries and board expenses.

In seeming anticipation of this outcome, on Tuesday CMEEC General Counsel Robin Kipnis provided a seven-page budget summary to The Day. While lacking the detail required by the FOI order, it raises serious concerns. It shows the salary account increasing 16 percent over the prior year, and non-fuel operating and management expenses jumping 9 percent.

There are no breakdowns in any category, no line items for the management expenses or for individual salaries.

If that is the “budget” the CMEEC board approved, then it is guilty of fiduciary negligence. It's more likely that the board saw the budgetary details but does not want to share them. The purpose of this nonprofit agency is to find the best deals for electric purchases and tap other revenue sources with the goal of holding down prices charged to customers of these government-owned utilities.

Its purpose is not to find ways to pay for lavish trips for executives or pump up big year-over-year salary increases.

It is said that the first thing to do when in a hole is to stop digging. The CMEEC board needs to stop digging. It should instruct Rankin to comply fully with the FOI order and then answer the questions that result from a thorough review of the CMEEC budget.

We know the FBI last November seized records from local utilities, we as yet don’t know why.

And having failed to block the state legislation, in which state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, played an important and lead role, CMEEC will soon be obligated to provide more information.

On Oct. 1 it will be required to provide the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee with the most recent audit, annual reports, its IRS 990 nonprofit form, and a listing of positions, salaries and benefits, among other things. The new law also requires a detailed, forensic audit going back four years.

It would seem those in charge of CMEEC want it to be held to the standards of a private business. It’s not. It’s a public agency. It’s time to come clean. Only then can CMEEC move forward in repairing its image and assure the public it is operating true to its core mission.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.


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