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    Monday, May 27, 2024

    CMEEC legal bills for FBI investigation, related matters top $362,000

    The Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative has incurred more than $362,000 in legal bills from six law firms from October 2016 through March 2018 to respond to an FBI investigation and related matters involving controversial trips to the Kentucky Derby hosted by the cooperative.

    When the legal bills for the FBI and related activities are added to the legal costs CMEEC incurred in representing officials from Norwich Public Utilities and Groton Utilities in local ethics complaints, the bills total more than $454,000.

    CMEEC hosted the trips for four years, from 2013 through 2016, for dozens of top staff, board members, family members and guests and public officials from throughout the state, at a combined total cost of $1.02 million. Public outcry after the trips were disclosed in October 2016 led to changes in state law, ethics violations found against trip participants in Groton City and Norwich and increased scrutiny of the previously overlooked utility cooperative.

    The Day received 135 pages of legal invoices and cover letters in a Freedom of Information Act request to CMEEC for legal bills associated with the FBI investigation into the Kentucky Derby trips, CMEEC contracts and relations between CMEEC and the six municipally owned utilities that own the cooperative.

    The invoices were heavily redacted to remove nearly all references to individual names of those being represented, specific topics of numerous conference calls, emails, documents, meetings and, in some cases, travel to specific places.

    CMEEC general counsel Robin Kipnis said in an email accompanying the numerous files on the FBI-related bills that the redactions pertained to “communications privileged by virtue of the attorney-client relationship. Specifically, the redacted information contains information privileged because it relates to either the specific nature of the services provided by the attorney, reveals the motive of the client in seeking representation by the attorney, or contains communication by the attorney for the purpose of obtaining legal advice.”

    Attorneys also billed CMEEC for time to review numerous news articles on the “Derby trips and fallout,” as one invoice notation stated, and articles on the Norwich and Groton ethics investigations of trip participants.

    In a previous FOIA request, CMEEC disclosed it paid nearly $53,000 to the firm Murtha Culina to represent four NPU officials during ethics hearings in Norwich in December 2016 and January 2017. Groton City resident Michael Boucher received from CMEEC the legal bills associated with the Groton Utilities ethics complaints in his own FOIA request. Murtha Culina billed CMEEC for a total of $39,175.95 from March through November for "response to ethics board" in Groton, the invoices stated.

    Attorney Paul McCary of Murtha Culina represented NPU General Manager John Bilda, NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko and then-utilities commissioners Dee Boisclair and Robert Groner in ethics complaints in Norwich, and also represented GU Director Ronald Gaudet, GU Manager of Utilities Finance David Collard and then-Groton utilities commission member Edward DeMuzzio in ethics complaints in Groton.

    Ethics commissions in both cities found the Kentucky Derby trip participants in violation of local ethics codes. Then-Norwich Mayor Deberey Hinchey, who attended the 2016 derby trip, also was found in violation. Hinchey hired her own attorney for the case.

    The invoices related to the FBI investigation totaled $362,403 from Oct. 28, 2016, through March 2018, and do not include Kipnis’ salary as a CMEEC staff member, listed at $190,000 in the 2018 cooperative budget.

    The Day filed the FOIA request to CMEEC on April 19, along with similar requests to NPU and Groton Utilities. NPU and Groton Utilities both provided the requested legal invoices mostly free of redactions in early May.

    The CMEEC bills began Oct. 28, 2016 — the date FBI agents delivered subpoenas to NPU, Groton Utilities and Bozrah Light & Power — according to invoices to those utilities and confirmed by utility officials.

    An invoice by Cowdery & Murphy LLC law firm of Hartford to CMEEC totaled $4,905 covering Oct. 28 through Nov. 30, 2016. The redacted entries by attorney Thomas Murphy described a telephone conference and email exchange with a redacted party on that first day. Two days later, Murphy had a “lengthy conference” with a redacted party.

    Cowdery & Murphy’s bills from October 2016 through March 2018 totaled $27,794.86.

    By far, the highest total for expenses billed to CMEEC was by Wiggin and Dana LLP of Stamford, with a combined total of $282,558.23 from Nov. 2, 2016, through March 26, 2018. The firm sent several invoices totaling more than $10,000 for a monthly bill cycle, topped by the bill for June 2017 totaling $51,291.63.

    The eight-page June 2017 invoice included notations such as “work on litigation support services,” and reviewing and revising documents, reviewing new state laws pertaining to CMEEC, news articles and travel to Darien for purposes that have been blacked out. One notation also stated “draft summary of” followed by an entire paragraph of blacked-out text.

    In April 2017, Wiggin and Dana sent CMEEC a five-page bill totaling $26,852.47 with one full page of descriptions of work entirely blacked out. Other notations included conference calls, at least 17 hours spent reviewing documents and conferences with other attorneys from the same firm and CMEEC general counsel Kipnis.

    At the end of one Wiggin and Dana invoice for December 2016 is a reference to a transcription of a “guilty plea.” CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin said that was an error by the firm, and pertained to a different client, not CMEEC. Another Wiggin and Dana bill for February 2018 refers to a termination letter. Rankin said it pertained to a contract the law firm had with a subcontractor that had ended.

    On all the invoices, individual names of those being represented have been blacked out. But one bill for expenses in March 2018 by the Cowdery & Murphy law firm was addressed to NPU General Manager Bilda at his home address in Norwich. The $405 bill included a “lengthy telephone conference,” review of materials from client and other telephone conferences.

    FBI investigation

    Utility officials have declined to comment on specifics of the FBI investigation, but some details were revealed in the unredacted NPU and Groton Utilities legal bills and in a 447-page report on the Groton ethics complaint. Jack Edwards, a retired inspector for the state’s attorney’s office, was hired by Groton City to investigate the complaints and compiled the report, on file at Groton City Hall.

    According to the NPU bills for March 2018, the FBI issued a new subpoena to NPU in late February 2018. The March bill to NPU by the Hartford law firm Reid and Reige PC included a notation by attorney Thomas V. Daily on March 14 describing a telephone conference with NPU Assistant General Manager Chris LaRose “regarding response to grand jury subpoena.”

    Edwards’ report said that the FBI subpoenas to Groton Utilities and Bozrah Light & Power, which is owned by GU, were seeking financial information, details of the Kentucky Derby trips and CMEEC’s and utilities’ finances and bids. The report also included a reference to a grand jury.

    The CMEEC bills made few unredacted references to an investigation, litigation and one notation in November 2016 by Wiggin and Dana for “subpoena compliance.” But all other specific references were blacked out.

    Wiggin and Dana and Cowdery & Murphy firms have been retained by CMEEC for the entire time period, starting Oct. 28, 2016, for Cowdery & Murpy and Nov. 2, 2016, for Dana and Wiggin through March 2018.

    According to their websites, both the Wiggin and Dana and the Cowdery & Murphy law firms have specialists in defending clients in cases of government investigations both civil and criminal, including white-collar crime and allegations of fraud and public corruption.

    Attorney James T. Cowdery previously served as chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Attorney Thomas J. Murphy previously served as assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut.

    Attorney Joseph W. Martini at Wiggin and Dana was described on that firm’s website as chairman of the firm's White Collar Defense, Investigations and Corporate Compliance Group. Martini worked extensively on the CMEEC case, according to the invoices.

    CMEEC at times brought in four other law firms, paying Spears Manning LLC of Hartford a total of $23,000 for two periods of work, July to August 2017 and September through November 2017. The bills included telephone conferences, communications with other counsel and with undisclosed parties “in connection with the investigation.”

    CMEEC paid the Hartford firm of Hubert J. Santos $25,000 in October 2017 for “the representation of (blacked out).” No other details were provided for the bill. Likewise, the New London firm Geraghty & Bonnano LLC was retained for one day on Oct. 17, 2017, to meet with “client and CMEEC counsel Joseph Martini from Wiggin and Dana concerning (two lines blacked out).” The bill totaled $1,350.

    The Hartford firm McConnell Family Law Group submitted an invoice for work in November 2017 that included travel, phone calls, a meeting and emails totaling $2,700. The descriptions for all five entries were blacked out completely.

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