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Groton overlooks oral school developer's history of bribing officials

When Groton Town Manager John Burt was asked in April about reports implicating the developer proposing one of the most massive projects in the town's history — a mixed-use commercial project with 700 to 850 housing units — in a 2004 New York City bribery scandal, the town's chief executive officer said, incredibly, he was unconcerned.

"We looked into it. I had a long discussion with (him.) He answered all the questions I had satisfactorily," the town manager told The Day.

Developer Jeffrey Respler, in his own interview with The Day at that time, denied the accusations, said they were untrue and claimed his lawyer had advised him to take the plea deal offered to stop the investigation and move on with his business.

But in a court hearing in 2004, Respler made detailed admissions under oath to a series of crimes, including bribing public officials with cash, that should give any municipality dealing with him reason to pause, or at least investigate beyond the "long discussion" with the developer that town manager Burt said put him at ease.

It is striking that Groton officials would shrug off the troubling criminal history of public malfeasance of a developer who would have such an enormous impact on the town. But what is even more alarming to me is that he was selected in the first place by both the town and the state Department of Economic and Community Development as the preferred developer of the abandoned, state-owned Mystic Oral School property.

Town manager Burt said in a memo early last year that there would be a shovel in the ground in 2021, but so far not a single application for the project has been filed.

The state actually signed in 2019 a purchase and sales contract allowing Respler to buy the property, with its existing buildings and some 40 acres of land, for $1. And while the contract begins with a description of the large project the developer is planning, it makes no demands of him whatsoever to do any of the development once the $1 purchase is complete.

Certainly no one in the town or the state DECD, in vetting the person they were going to give 40 acres of land in Mystic to, did the simple Google search which apparently led a lawyer hired by neighbors of the property to the New York City bribery scandal.

Worse, it's hard to imagine they even checked out his work as a Connecticut developer, since one of the three housing developments he cited in his resume, an almost 11-year-old, 69-house project in East Windsor, is practically stalled, with only 14 units constructed. Respler had to get the town to renew the project permits last summer because they were expiring at the end of 10 years.

There is nothing in the credentials Respler presented to the state and town to indicate he has ever done anything on the scale of what he is proposing for Mystic or that he has ever built any of the kinds of mixed-use development he has suggested, including a micro hotel, offices, a market, recreation center and commercial space.

After spending some time learning about Respler and what he is proposing for Groton, including significant but still undefined tax incentives, I have a lot of questions. But town manager Burt refused to speak with me for most of the week, saying he would only respond to written questions submitted by email. I didn't take the town manager up on his offer to submit questions in writing because I knew I would have too many follow-up questions and it wouldn't be a fulsome way to discuss such important issues, without the conversation of an interview. I tried for three days, but he wouldn't take my calls.

Burt wrote Thursday morning to say he would try to arrange a phone conference with planning officials when their schedules allow. I told him I was on a deadline and he wrote back to say his staff would not be available until next week.

I was also refused access to the files pertaining to the project at the town's planning office. Reviewing public files is something I have routinely done at planning offices in municipalities throughout eastern Connecticut during my many decades as a reporter. It was startling to be denied them.

The town has put some documents relating to the project online. But that is very different than the kind of material, correspondence, notes and memos that are included in files that municipalities routinely make available to the public, either reporters or interested neighbors.

I find it especially troubling that Groton has tried to put a clamp on public documents pertaining to a project being proposed by someone who admitted before a judge, in his words, to giving a New York City official "a benefit in the form of United States currency for the purpose of influencing (his) opinion, judgement, action, decision or exercise of discretion as a public official."

Indeed, the four charges to which Respler pleaded guilty in that court session included not just one but two incidents of bribery, with bribes totaling $40,000, as well as crimes in which Respler paid someone to falsely use his plumbing license on official documents and filed false statements with the city that said he was paying workers appropriate wages.

Respler also admitted that he sold a property in Long Island City to a plumber's union for $1.9 million — $400,000 above its market value — after agreeing to give a kickback of $10,000 to the business manager of the union.

The plea agreement included Respler making significant restitution, including $360,000 to the plumber's union for the fraudulent building sale and $300,000 to a trust to reimburse workers' lost wages. He also forfeited $75,000 to the state of New York. The $10,000 in bribes related to three contracts worth $7.2 million that Respler's plumbing company had with the city to install water meters.

The investigation, which netted three other arrests, including city officials who took the bribes, was done by the City of New York Department of Investigation and the prosecutions were supervised by the attorney in charge of the New York State Attorney General's Organized Crime Task Force.

When I spoke to Respler on Tuesday, I asked him why he told The Day in April that he had nothing to do with paying bribes, didn't promise a kickback in the sale of a building and never improperly paid his employees, despite an elaborate admission to those crimes he made in court. I read some of his testimony to him.

"No comment," was all he said, after a long period of silence on the line.

I wonder what he told Burt in their "long discussion," after which Burt told The Day: "I have all the faith in Respler Homes and Mr. Respler."

I found another answer by Respler to something I raised in our conversation to be strange.

I asked him why he lists himself on his LinkedIn profile as the CEO for 13 years of a company called Advanced Construction Technologies, since principals of that California business, with 29 employees, told me they have never heard of him. Respler's LinkedIn profile uses the company's distinct logo.

Respler said the company in his profile is defunct, one he started many years ago but never used, at a time when he intended to go into the geothermal and solar business. He said he hasn't tended his LinkedIn profile for a while and could not explain why his listing shows a company and its logo that he has no association with. Of course, if his own company with that name is defunct and was never used, one wonders why he would list it at all.

In his proposal to the state to develop the oral school property, Respler lists his primary developer credentials as three housing projects in Connecticut, including the unfinished one in East Windsor, as well as a 154-unit project in Berlin and another with 92 units in Beacon Falls. I visited all three. The small project in Beacon Falls appears largely finished and much of the Berlin development is built with homes occupied and site work underway on the makings of a new phase.

The lack of progress on the project in East Windsor is very evident, where the one section of completed road drifts off into an unfinished cul-de-sac, with weeds growing around the installed sewer lines. Other sections of road for the nearly 11-year-old development are not cleared.

East Windsor files on the Respler project, which planning officials made promptly available when I asked, show the records of the extension of permits the developer had to request because they were expiring. 

Some residents in the dozen or so homes whom I spoke with said they are frustrated with the slow progress and some of them complained about the developer not being responsive to problems with the completed houses brought to his attention.

Respler told me more of the East Windsor development is not finished because the houses are custom and he only builds them as they are sold. He said he has addressed problems from homeowners while the houses were still under warranty, but some people have come to him with complaints long after their houses were finished and sold.

When I asked about his lack of experience building the kind of development he has proposed in Mystic, with a market, restaurant, hotel and office space, he said once you've built a house, you can build other things.

The purchase and sales contract for the oral school and 40 acres of the site was overseen and signed Nov. 7, 2019, by state Economic and Community Development Deputy Commissioner David Kooris, who has since left state government but remains chairman of the Connecticut Port Authority board and has managed the state's remake of State Pier in New London.

The contract with Respler sets out a $1 sale of the property but makes no demands of the developer that he do anything specific with it. It refers only generally to plans he has for the property. There are a series of contingencies pertaining to permits for the proposed development, contingencies the contract allows Respler to waive.

DECD attorney Chris Kurker-Stewart told me, when I asked, that it is possible that Respler could waive the contingencies meant to protect him and ask for a closing on the $1 purchase, without being required to do anything he has promised.

But the lawyer told me in a follow-up email that the contract is "premised" on the proposed plans by Respler and that it is unlikely he would seek to simply buy the property for $1.

"The scenario you posit would pose a significant risk to Respler, as he would be reneging on everything proposed and supplied to the town and state thus far," Kurker-Stewart wrote. "Additionally, any single-family development would still require town approval, unless he were to build only one or two homes, which would presumably negate any financial justification."

I wish I could buy 40 acres in a desirable part of Mystic for only $1 and worry only about how many houses I could build in compliance with 2-acre zoning.

A contract without any substantial conditions is only one of the state's gifts to Respler. It also has leased the property to him for $1 for the period before the closing, up to three and a half years, and has assigned him the annual income, now $66,224 and rising at 3% a year, from the cellphone companies that maintain a tower on the property.

The developer is supposed to spend the money to secure the property and keep out vandals, but there is no provision for the state to recover any of the cellphone tower rent not spent. The town signed a subsequent agreement with Respler, ensuring that he won't have to pay property taxes to the town as a result of the lease.

The town signed a development agreement with Respler in February 2020 that included a series of anticipated milestones. It appears few of them, as laid out in a memo from town manager Burt from the month before, have been achieved 16 months later. The agreement also strangely pledges the town's assistance in helping the developer deal with federal and state authorities.

Burt said in his memo that planning, design, engineering, regulatory and legal approvals would all be obtained in 2020 and there would be a "shovel in the ground" in 2021. No approvals have been obtained and in fact there has yet to be a single application.

The Town Council has supported the town's coddling of Respler, with all nine councilors signing an op-ed that ran in The Day March 1 celebrating what the councilors said are "so many positive facets" of the project. And yet neighbors in that part of town seem united in their opposition, given the protest signs that appear on most lawns in the area.

Councilor Lian Obrey complained in a council meeting this month about angry and rude emails she has received from residents about her support for the project.

It seems to me that Obrey and her fellow councilors should listen more to their constituents and less to the developer's cheerleaders on the town payroll.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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