CMEEC appoints investigation committee, works to stave off legislative action

Norwich — Five board members of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative who did not attend lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and golf resort that led to federal corruption charges will oversee an internal investigation into the Nov. 8 federal indictments of two cooperative top staff and three former board members.

Once the investigation is completed, the committee is expected to deliberate on whether indicted CEO Drew Rankin — placed on unpaid leave Nov. 9 — should be removed from his position. The CMEEC board faced public criticism last week after it reappointed three board officers who participated in the lavish trips and included Rankin as the CEO on the 2019 list of officers and top staff. CMEEC Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor, also indicted, will retire effective Jan. 1 and was not listed.

The CMEEC board held a special meeting Tuesday and voted unanimously to appoint Groton municipal representative Mark Oefinger, Norwich board member Stewart Peil, Norwalk Third Taxing District commissioner Debora Goldstein, Bozrah Light & Power commissioner Richard Tanger and South Norwalk Electric and Water General Manager Paul Yatcko to the new special committee.

“The CMEEC Board of Directors has also determined that the creation of a Special Committee comprised of CMEEC directors who did not participate in certain activities subject to the independent investigation is the most effective means of providing CMEEC Board oversight of the investigation,” the resolution approved Tuesday stated.

The new committee will oversee the investigation conducted by outside attorney Eileen Duggan, review her anticipated report and make recommendations to the full CMEEC board of directors on “any interim and/or final actions it deems appropriate and necessary.”

Rankin; Pryor; Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda, a former CMEEC board member; and former board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton were charged in one indictment with one count each of conspiracy and three counts each of theft from a program receiving federal funds.

Rankin and Sullivan face similar charges in a second indictment over Sullivan receiving CMEEC funds for $96,000 in travel and personal expenses. The indictments allege that the parties conspired to keep knowledge of the lavish trips and reimbursements out of the public eye and free of board actions.

The CMEEC board placed Rankin and Pryor on unpaid leave and removed Bilda from the board on Nov. 9. A week after those actions, the Norwich utilities commission voted Nov. 15 to place Bilda on indefinite paid leave.

The CMEEC board called for its internal investigation to be completed within 30 days. CMEEC spokesman Jake Pagragan said Duggan started working on the investigation a few days ago, and no specific deadline date has been set.

Bill Kowalski, the state-appointed municipal ratepayer advocate — a position created in 2017 in reaction to news of the lavish trips — participated in Tuesday's meeting by telephone conference.

After requesting that none of the committee members have connections with the derby and golf resort trips, Kowalski asked that the committee post notices of the committee meetings more than 24 hours in advance and to hold its meetings in open session as much as possible.

Kowalski acknowledged that discussions of personnel matters, including hiring and firing or sanctions against staff, would be appropriate for executive session. But he asked that discussions of the attorney's findings and her report be done in open session and that the committee release the final report to the public “within a reasonable but brief timeframe,” such as 48 hours after the committee receives it.

CMEEC also released a letter Tuesday to the six member municipal utilities that own CMEEC and other customers and partners. The letter, signed by board Chairman Kenneth Sullivan and interim CEO Michael Lane, summarizes steps the board has taken in response to the indictments and actions taken to “to get more information, promote transparency and ensure accountability.”

At the Nov. 15 annual meeting, board member Yatcko issued a public statement criticizing the board for reappointing board leaders who had attended the retreats in varying degrees and also continued to keep Rankin as CEO in the 2019 appointment of CMEEC staff. The letter explained the action.

“It should be noted that at the annual meeting we were required to present the slate of officers for 2019,” the letter to members and partners stated, “and were advised that, as a matter of employment law, we could not remove Mr. Rankin’s name pending the outcome of the independent investigation and other steps. At the conclusion of the investigation, the full board is committed to reviewing all the facts and the recommendations of the Special Committee.”

The votes last week also drew immediate criticism from the public and state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who pledged to submit legislation to consider whether CMEEC should be disbanded or at least regulated by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority, which regulates private investor utilities but not municipal utilities or the cooperative.

Following Tuesday’s special meeting, board member and Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick told the board he was approached by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, Monday following a Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments meeting for information on CMEEC's role with the utilities.

Hedrick said he is compiling a slide show to present to legislators in the upcoming session that would explain the benefits of CMEEC. He said he would reach out to CMEEC staff for technical information for the presentation.

The SCCOG met with the local legislative delegation Monday to discuss the council’s legislative agenda for 2019, including opposition to “any legislation that would hinder the (CMEEC) in performing its mission in providing electric services to several municipal utilities and participating wholesale customers located in Connecticut,” the COG position paper stated.

“This is very important because there are people out there that are absolutely trying to kill CMEEC,” Hedrick told the board, “and I’m trying to build a slide presentation about the good things that CMEEC does for the (municipal electric utilities).”

c.bessette@theday.com

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