Doesn't CMEEC get it? It has to change

Whether it was arrogance, a misguided attempt to do what they considered best for the beleaguered agency or a combination of both, the vote Thursday to reappoint officers tainted by scandal to the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative board was a mistake.

The board missed an opportunity to regain some semblance of public trust and instead returned to the same flawed thinking that it has followed since its gross misuse of resources first surfaced.

Chief Executive Officer Drew Rankin played the role of the Pied Piper who connived with and convinced those with authority over him that it was somehow OK to expend money on the cooperative’s books to pay for high-cost trips to Kentucky Derby weekends from 2013 to 2016. The mentality also extended to trips to The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia.

It must have been nice. At least until two years ago when, with preparation underway for a fifth trip to the Derby, the Norwich Bulletin and this newspaper broke the news of the annual excursions. The public reacted as one might expect: with outrage.

Excuses that the funds used to pay for the Derby trips for CMEEC officers and friends, collectively totaling more than $1 million, did not come from the primary mission of the cooperative — purchasing power for its municipal utility members — but from a “margin fund,” stocked from other transactions, mollified no one.

At that point Rankin should have been fired. But how could the officers on the board do that? They were accomplices. They had gone on the trips. They had approved them. To dismiss Rankin would be an acknowledgement that they, too, had acted wrongly and should step aside. How bad was it? A recent federal indictment alleges that James Sullivan, the former Norwich representative to CMEEC and former chairman of its board of directors, worked with Rankin to charge nearly $100,000 in personal expenses to CMEEC.

So Rankin remained for the past two years and the board changed little, even as ethics commissions in Groton and Norwich — host communities to Groton Utilities and Norwich Public Utilities — ruled these actions violated ethics rules. It took an act of the state legislature to add some degree of accountability and fiscal transparency.

But those federal indictments, the ones that ensnared Rankin and Sullivan when announced Nov. 8 in U.S. District Court in New Haven, are harder to shrug off than a wrist slap from a local ethics commission. Also indicted were CMEEC Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor, Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and former board member Edward DeMuzzio of Groton.

The five face charges of conspiracy, theft from a program receiving federal funds and aiding and abetting the theft from a program receiving federal funds. Rankin and Sullivan face a second indictment with similar charges.

Finally, after the indictments, Rankin and Pryor were placed on unpaid administrative leave. Bilda, already removed from the CMEEC board, was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday by the NPU commission. Both CMEEC and NPU seem to be moving cautiously to avoid contractual blowback.

But more change is needed. CMEEC had an opportunity at its annual meeting Thursday to do just that. Paul Yatcko, general manager of CMEEC member South Norwalk Electric and Water, suggested a slate of officers who did not take part in any of the junkets, with him as chairman.

Misguidedly, the board voted 10-5 for the status quo. Among those re-elected were Chairman Kevin Sullivan, director of utilities for the Jewett City Department of Public Utilities; Vice Chairman Ron Gaudet, director of Groton Utilities and Bozrah Light & Power; and Secretary Louis Demicco of Jewett City. All three participated in the trips to various extents.

Perhaps these reappointments were turf protection for local utilities, but it comes across as a public relations disaster.

This decision should open the cooperative to further legislative action, including potentially bringing it under the jurisdiction of state regulators and the Office of the Attorney General. Talk of dismantling CMEEC is premature. It still can play a role in helping keep prices down for municipal utility consumers. But the board is risking that result with its obstinacy.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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