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CMEEC trial moved to April 2021 due to COVID-19

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The criminal trial of five former utility cooperative officials indicted on corruption charges in connection with lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby was postponed on Tuesday due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has interrupted the federal court schedule.

Jury selection now is scheduled to start the first week in April 2021.

During a video court scheduling conference Tuesday, Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer consulted with attorneys for the five former Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials, government prosecutors and an attorney for CMEEC on logistical difficulties in starting a complex criminal trial during COVID-19 restrictions.

The trial had been scheduled to begin in October at the New Haven federal court. But federal courts in Connecticut are not expected to resume criminal trials until November at the earliest, Meyer said. Trials involving criminals who have been detained, some for long periods of time, and trials expected to be brief will be the first priority, he told the attorneys.

CMEEC hosted trips to the Kentucky Derby called board retreats from 2013 through 2016 for top staff, board members, family and dozens of invited guests. Two trips were taken to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, and CMEEC made unrefunded deposits for a 2017 Kentucky Derby trip that was canceled.

Former CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin; former CMEEC Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor; former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda, the former CMEEC board vice chairman; former board Chairman James Sullivan of Norwich and former board Treasurer Edward DeMuzzio of Groton were indicted in November 2018 and face charges of conspiracy and theft from a program receiving federal funds.

Meyer and the defendants’ attorneys participating in the video conference estimated the trial could take about a month.

Because the charges involve actions that allegedly occurred during their tenures with CMEEC, the energy cooperative is paying advanced legal bills for the five defendants. Through mid-June, the total legal fees is approximately $3.3 million, CMEEC general counsel Robin Kipnis said later Tuesday.

During the court conference, CMEEC attorney Joseph W. Martini expressed concern on behalf of CMEEC ratepayers about the rising legal fees and said April 2021 is a "fairly lengthy continuance."

Attorneys expressed concern that there would need to be a large jury pool gathered in the courthouse for jury selection. Potential jurors also might be reluctant to come to a crowded courthouse for the selection.

Earlier Tuesday, Meyer denied the defendants’ motion either to move the trial to Hartford federal court or to exclude all residents in CMEEC member towns from the jury pool. CMEEC is owned by public utilities in Norwich, Groton, Bozrah, Jewett City and Norwalk.

In his five-page ruling, Meyer wrote that current residents in the CMEEC municipalities would not necessarily be biased against the defendants. Potential bias could be explored through questioning during the jury screening.

“The CMEEC towns are but a fraction of the scores of towns and cities within the New Haven jury pool,” Meyer wrote, “and there is no reason to conclude that complications due to the presence of prospective jurors from any of the CMEEC towns will jeopardize the ability to form a jury in New Haven."

Attorney William Dow, representing DeMuzzio, said the defendants' attorneys had conferred and found April 2021 to be a "reasonable target" for scheduling the trial. He said some of the defendants are in their 70s and vulnerable to the coronavirus.

c.bessette@theday.com

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