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Rankin: No one questioned or complained about chartered jets, limos and $10,000 dinners

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New Haven — In May 2016, former utility cooperative CEO Drew Rankin handed out Kentucky Derby tickets, with printed prices of $907 and $405 to the dozens of attendees to the cooperative's annual “strategic retreat at Churchill Downs."

None of the participants in the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative Kentucky Derby trips ever questioned the costs of those tickets, Rankin testified Tuesday in the federal criminal trial of Rankin and four other defendants accused of conspiracy and theft in connection with four trips to the Kentucky Derby and two to a luxury Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia that cost $1.2 million.

And none questioned or objected to the annual Thursday pre-Derby dinner and drinks at the revolving restaurant atop the Galt House hotel in Louisville, or the chartered jets and limousines, Rankin said. No employees ever filed whistleblower complaints about the costs of the trips, Rankin said.

In contrast, he said he received, “overwhelming positive support and encouragement to do it again.”

Rankin returned to the witness stand Tuesday for several hours of questioning by his attorney, Craig A. Raabe, defending trips to the Derby and to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

Asked by Raabe whether he ever asked CMEEC attorneys if the trips violated any criminal laws, Rankin responded: “No, I did not. It never entered my mind. I had been to these types of retreats all my career.”

Raabe displayed a restaurant bill from one of the Kentucky Derby dinners. Dozens of dinners costing more than $200 per plate, numerous cocktails and a dozen bottles of wine were consumed. Rankin said the $10,000 cost was reasonable for a corporate dinner with about three dozen attendees. He said many other corporations were holding functions at the Derby at the same time.

Rankin testified Monday that he had worked for public and private utilities in Ohio and Colorado and had attended retreats at luxury resorts and state parks, in skyboxes at sports stadiums and once aboard an antique train for a three-week tour.

Rankin, former CMEEC CFO Edward Pryor, former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face felony charges of conspiracy and theft from a program that receives federal funds in association with the trips.

CMEEC hosted the trips for dozens of top staff, board members, some family members, local political leaders, vendors and others from 2013 to 2016. Four of the defendants face four theft charges, while Sullivan faces three charges, as he resigned from his CMEEC and Norwich utility commission positions prior to the 2016 Kentucky Derby trip.

A nonprofit, CMEEC is owned by its member municipal utilities: Norwich Public Utilities, Groton Utilities, Bozrah Light & Power, Jewett City Department of Public Utilities, South Norwalk Electric and Water and Norwalk Third Taxing District.

The indictment alleges the cooperative used revenue intended to be returned to member ratepayers to stabilize electric rates to pay for the trips.

U.S. attorneys allege the trip planners never sought board approval for the trips and allegedly concealed specific references.

Rankin's attorney presented several emails dating to 2013, the year of the first Derby trip, including one email in which Rankin asked a CMEEC staff member to remove a reference to “Kentucky Derby” in planning communications and change it to “strategic retreat.” Rankin said the new title better reflected the purpose of the trips and was not a deception.

While there was no official business conducted on the trips, Rankin testified that he arranged for participants to sit together at their reserved tables at the races so they could discuss utility issues and socialize to get to know one another.

Rankin said in August 2013, he wrote to board members: “Secured spring strategic planning venue, as past spring. All good,” making no specific reference to the upcoming 2014 Kentucky Derby trip.

Although the CMEEC board never voted directly on budgets for the Derby or Greenbrier trips, Rankin said the expenses first were in the budget under the administration and general expenses budget and in 2014 moved to board expenses. The latter was funded through the Margin Fund, profits derrived from CMEEC services to outside parties — power sold to nonmember municipal utilities and management services. Those profits are distributed to members for rate stabilization.

Rankin said “Kentucky Derby retreat” was not listed in the budget, because that would be “too much detail,” for a budget line category.

In 2015, Rankin said he arranged for a chartered jet to the Derby to avoid the “scattered” arrangements of 30 flights. Limousines chauffered the participants from the plane. Participants stayed at the Galt House and again had a dinner at the RIVUE.

During Tuesday's session, a portion of the 2015 Kentucky Derby trip itinerary was projected on a screen for the jury to see by Raabe. 

“Eat, drink, be merry and watch the races all day with open bar, open buffets and balconies overlooking the paddocks,” it stated.

In 2016, when The Day filed Freedom of Information Act requests for trip guest lists and costs, Rankin said CMEEC staff had to compile the lists from various documents. The list provided to the paper, however, omitted several names, including Bilda’s parents and former Groton Mayor Dennis Popp.

Rankin said those guests flew separately and were not in CMEEC's flight records, although CMEEC paid for their flights. Rankin said he reviewed the list before it was released to The Day but did not add the missing names. He said he did not intend to “deceive” The Day in leaving out the names.

The defense is expected to continue presenting its case this week. Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer told the jury Tuesday the projected trial schedule estimates that evidence should conclude this week, and prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys should present concluding arguments early next week.

c.bessette@theday.com

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