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    Sunday, September 25, 2022

    State to proceed with $1 sale of Mystic Oral School to developer convicted of bribery

    It seemed inconceivable to me that the state of Connecticut and the town of Groton, through an extensive bid process to find a developer for the abandoned Mystic Oral School and its prime 40 acres of land, ended up choosing someone with a criminal history of bribing public officials.

    The developer selected in 2019, Jeffrey Respler, entered guilty pleas in 2004 related to a New York City bribery scandal prosecuted by the New York Attorney General’s Organized Crime Task Force.

    Even more incredible, Respler had no history of developing anything on the scale of the 700-unit project he was proposing for the oral school property.

    Groton’s Planning and Zoning Commission last year finally threw a bucket of cold water on the Respler plans, saying it would not change the zoning of the site to accommodate the density of development being proposed.

    The relationship between the town and Respler subsequently broke down, and arbitration over the town’s development agreement with him seems headed toward expensive litigation.

    So it was alarming to me to discover this week, because of some intrepid sleuthing by a local resident, that the state is proceeding with plans to sell Respler the magnificent Mystic site for $1.

    And I know this is hard to imagine, but the sales contract for the property makes no demand on Respler whatsoever to do anything in particular with it. He pays the state $1 and gets this amazing property with no obligations.

    It gets even worse. The state is busy processing an application from him to get grant money to clean up any pollutants that remain on the property.

    The architect of this sweet deal appears to be David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

    It was Lehman who revealed in some recent emails with Mystic resident John Goodrich that it seems full speed ahead for closing the deal with Respler. The contract sets a November deadline for the closing.

    Goodrich copied me on the emails.

    “DECD is working with Respler Homes, LLC toward a potential closing as outlined in our contract,” Lehman wrote Sept. 9, in response to the inquiries from Goodrich.

    Lehman dismissed the concerns Goodrich raised with him, including the thumbs down the Planning and Zoning Commission gave to the Respler plans.

    “Importantly, if the transaction closes and if the new owners’ proposed project requires a change in local zoning, it is my expectation that neighbors and citizens such as yourself will have an opportunity to share their perspectives as part of the local Planning and Zoning approval process.”

    My translation: We are selling him the property for $1. I really don’t care what the people of Groton think. Go complain to your planning commission.

    In a subsequent email on Sept. 12, Commissioner Lehman was more blunt: “The contract has been complied with thus far. Respler Homes, LLC has elected to waive their remaining contingencies, pursuant to the contract, and proceed to closing.”

    I emailed Lehman directly Tuesday, and he responded to say that the sale is proceeding, adding, “DECD does not have the unilateral right to terminate the contract, as is customary for a seller in property transactions.”

    He said the $1 selling price reflects the need for environmental cleanup, but he noted that Respler has already applied for state assistance with that through a brownfield remediation program.

    When the news of Respler’s criminal convictions -- first unearthed by a lawyer hired by neighbors, not by any due diligence by the state or town -- I spoke to DECD lawyer Chris Kurker-Stewart about the sales contract.

    I am not a lawyer, but it seemed strange to me that all the contingencies were things that Respler could waive and that he could eventually buy the property for $1 without an obligation to do anything with it.

    The lawyer told me then it was unlikely Respler would just 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 this far,” Kurker-Stewart wrote to me then. “Additionally, any single-family development would still require town approval, unless he were to build only one or two homes, which could presumably negate any financial justification.”

    I guess DECD lawyers don’t understand the value of 40 acres of land on a bluff above the Mystic River.

    Neither the commissioner nor his lawyer seem to comprehend the point of selling a valuable property for $1 is that you extract concessions about how the property must be developed.

    David Kooris, a former deputy DECD commissioner, actually signed the purchase and sales agreement. Kooris, who no longer works for the state, remains Gov. Ned Lamont’s hand-picked chairman of the Connecticut Port Authority, which is under multiple state and federal criminal investigations.

    It is astounding to me that Respler, a guy convicted by mob prosecutors in New York for bribing public officials, has successfully made fools out of officialdom in the state of Connecticut.

    It is looking like he is going to walk away with prime Mystic real estate for $1, with no obligation, and is very likely going to proceed with his claims against the town in what could become an expensive lawsuit for town taxpayers.

    It’s an election year. I’m listening to what candidates have to say about this.

    This is the opinion of David Collins

    d.collins@theday.com

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