Critical CMEEC review should be done by independent auditor

The decision by the energy cooperative serving the municipally owned utilities in our area to seek new bids for a detailed audit of its operations shows a state law, created to prevent a repeat of past abuses, is working.

Unfortunately, the initial decision by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative to move ahead with the audit — before being prodded to reconsider — shows the organization remains confused about the challenge it faces in polishing its tarnished image.

Things got to this point after a series of investigative news reports detailed how, from 2013-2016, CMEEC funded extravagant trips to Kentucky Derby weekend events for dozens of top staff, board members and their families, as well as business associates and public officials. CMEEC records show the trips collectively cost about $1 million.

The intent of the cooperative is to help the municipal utilities that collectively own it — including those serving Groton, Norwich and Jewett City — buy wholesale electricity and hold down rates. Despite official claims the trips helped build esprit de corps, they were in reality over-the-top junkets with no business conducted.

Among several reforms passed by the General Assembly was the ordering of a forensic audit going back five years and the appointment of a municipal electric consumer advocate, a watchdog position filled by Bill Kowalski.

CMEEC’s bid process for the forensic audit attracted only two firms, and one dropped out, leaving BlumShapiro, the firm that has conducted the cooperative’s regular annual audits. BlumShapiro assured the CMEEC board that there would be no conflict because a separate auditing staff would carry out the more detailed review.

There is no reason to doubt BlumShapiro would have taken the necessary precautions to avoid a conflict, but for appearance’s sake an independent review is called for. The public would have greeted with skepticism any audit results, particularly if they were positive for CMEEC and, by extension, BlumShapiro’s past work.

The state law worked insomuch as it was at Kowalski’s urging that the cooperative reconsidered and will request new proposals with the intent of finding an independent auditor. The audit is critical in either providing a clean slate for CMEEC’s past conduct or uncovering other abuses.

Thumbs up for state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who led the drive for the CMEEC reforms and who more recently said she was prepared to file legislation turning the job of hiring the auditor over to the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

It appears CMEEC got the message.

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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