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Five CMEEC officials indicted on federal theft charges

November 9, 2018

A two-year investigation by the FBI into activities and finances of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative, centered around lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby, culminated Thursday with the indictment of five CMEEC officials.

The indictments unsealed Thursday in U.S. District Court in New Haven charge Drew Rankin, 57, chief executive officer of CMEEC; James Sullivan, 52, the former Norwich representative to CMEEC and former chairman of its board of directors; John Bilda, 54, Norwich Public Utilities general manager, former vice chairman of the CMEEC board of directors and a current member of the CMEEC board; Edward DeMuzzio, 77, former Groton Utilities representative and the secretary of the CMEEC board; and Edward Pryor, 62, chief financial officer of CMEEC.

They are charged with conspiracy, theft from a program receiving federal funds and aiding and abetting the theft from a program receiving federal funds. All five of them appeared Thursday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Spector and pleaded not guilty. Each was released on 250,000. For each of count of alleged theft from a program that receives federal funds, the defendants face a possible maximum prison sentence of 10 years and fines of 96,515.

The indictment stated that Sullivan’s personal expenses were paid using CMEEC funds without approval by the board of directors and falsely were attributed to “lobbying expenses,” although Sullivan was not a registered lobbyist for CMEEC.

Sullivan resigned from the CMEEC board and from his position as Norwich utilities commission chairman in October 2015, weeks after he was accused in an unrelated sexual harassment complaint.

Sullivan is married to California U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, and was allowed travel to Washington, D.C., and to California for work and family.

Sanchez, who was re-elected Tuesday, issued a statement Thursday stating she would withdraw from her bid to be Democratic Caucus chairwoman in the wake of her husband’s indictment.

“Earlier today, I learned that my husband is facing charges in Connecticut,” she said in a statement. “After careful consideration of the time and energy being in leadership demands, I have decided that my focus now needs to be on my son, my family, and my constituents in California.”

According to the indictments, CMEEC received more than 1.02 million, according to summaries of the itineraries and attendee lists provided by CMEEC to The Day through Freedom of Information Act requests. But the indictment alleged that in response to those FOI requests, Rankin omitted names of some participants in the Kentucky Derby and golf resort trips — including names of Bilda’s parents who attended in 2016 — and underreported the costs of the trips “by tens of thousands of dollars.”

CMEEC used revenues in a so-called Margin Fund of accumulated profits from utilities and management services contracts with several outside entities. Revenue in the fund is intended to be distributed among the six CMEEC owner utilities as electric rate stabilization revenue.

The indictments allege that Rankin and Bilda falsely told utility, municipal leaders and the media that no ratepayer or taxpayer money was used to fund the trips, which were categorized as CMEEC board retreats.

The indictment stated that the trips “did not relate to CMEEC business, CMEEC member towns and furnishing of efficient, low-cost and reliable electric power to the member towns.”

The indictment said CMEEC officials did not seek approval from the board of directors for the trips, did not include the costs as a budgeted item and used money in the Margin Fund without written consent of the member towns or a vote by the board of directors. The use of funds was reported as “board expenses” and “delegation related expenses” in the Margin Fund.

The alleged co-conspirators “encouraged those invited to the trips not to discuss the trips with non-attendees,” the indictment states. When the trips became public knowledge, the indictment states, the alleged co-conspirators reportedly made false statements to member towns’ officials and to the media about the trips.

“While struggling Connecticut ratepayers wrestled with the highest electric costs in the continental United States, executives at CMEEC used funds intended to stabilize rates to fund extravagant trips for their own amusement,” state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who introduced bills to bring more transparency to CMEEC, said Thursday in a news release. “Even worse, the ringleaders of this behavior worked hard to hide their activities from their members, ratepayers and state officials.”

The first of the two indictments sheds light on the alleged scheme with specific references to trip expenses. The document indicates that Rankin purchased 30 trip packages to the 2015 Kentucky Derby, including event tickets, hotel rooms, food and gift bags, in the amount of 54,021 for roundtrip chartered air service from Groton to Louisville for the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

Legal bills paid by CMEEC, NPU and Groton Utilities pertaining to the FBI investigation obtained by The Day through Freedom of Information Act requests — some heavily redacted — described many hours by attorneys reviewing multiple subpoenas, compiling documents in response to FBI requests for information and conference calls among utilities administrators and FBI investigators.

Bilda, who said he was in Florida when he learned of the indictment Wednesday, announced on Oct. 16 he plans to retire as NPU general manager sometime in 2019 once a successor is hired and a transition is completed.

DeMuzzio resigned from his position on the Groton Utilities Commission and the CMEEC board in September 2017 after he and other Groton Utilities Kentucky Derby trip participants were found to be in violation of the Groton City ethics code.

“CMEEC has received millions of dollars in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy,” Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney John H. Durham said in a news release. “Instead of protecting these funds and returning excess revenue to member towns and ratepayers, these defendants are alleged to have used the CMEEC Margin Account as a secret slush fund to pay for lavish junkets for themselves and their family and friends, as well as for other inappropriate expenses. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to working with our federal law enforcement partners to safeguard public funds and prosecute those who steal from the public.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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