CMEEC investigation committee starts work with 2-hour, closed-door meeting
Norwich — The committee formed to oversee an internal investigation into the federal indictments of five Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials met for more than two hours behind closed doors at the start of its first meeting Friday with the attorney hired to conduct the probe.
The committee, formed by the CMEEC board of directors Nov. 20, held heard an overview by attorney Eileen Duggan into the actions of cooperative CEO Drew Rankin and Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor.
Both men were placed on unpaid leave for 30 days following federal indictments Nov. 8 on public corruption charges in connection with lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby hosted by CMEEC from 2013 to 2016, and to a West Virginia golf resort.
The 30-day suspension expires Dec. 7, but the investigation is expected to take longer than 30 days. CMEEC General Counsel Robin Kipnis said during the open session that a recommendation regarding the 30-day period was discussed in executive session, and the committee will meet in a telephone conference at 2 p.m. Dec. 5 to act on that recommendation. Kipnis said the CMEEC board would need to hold a special meeting shortly after that vote to act on the committee’s recommendation.
Rankin, Pryor, Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face charges of conspiracy and three counts of theft from a program receiving federal funds in one indictment. Rankin and Sullivan face similar charges in a second indictment for reimbursements totaling more than $97,000 for Sullivan’s personal expenses and travel.
Duggan’s internal investigation is expected to focus on the two CMEEC top staffers and their alleged actions to steer CMEEC funds to pay for the lavish trips, gifts and personal expenses for the indicted participants and dozens of other CMEEC staff, board members, their families and guests.
The cooperative is owned by six municipal utilities: Norwich Public Utilities, Groton Utilities, Bozrah Light & Power, Jewett City Department of Public Utilities and two utilities in Norwalk. Special committee members are Stewart Peil of Norwich, Mark Oefinger of Groton, South Norwalk Electric and Water General Manager Paul Yatcko, Bozrah Light & Power Commissioner Richard Tanger and Norwalk Third Taxing District commissioner Debora Goldstein.
Once Duggan’s investigation is completed, the special committee is expected to deliberate on whether Rankin should be terminated. Pryor announced plans last summer — months before the indictments — to retire effective Jan. 1 and is not expected to return, while Rankin was listed on CMEEC’s staff and board directory as the CEO for 2019.
The committee meeting started with Oefinger asking for an executive session overview of Duggan’s investigation before the group elected a chairman and set a meeting schedule.
State Municipal Ratepayer Advocate Bill Kowalski, participating by conference phone, initially objected to the closed-door session, and asked the committee to conduct as much business as possible in open session as part of CMEEC’s goal of increased transparency with the public and ratepayers. Oefinger countered that much of the investigation will involve personnel and legal issues related to employee positions, and those are proper executive session issues.
Duggan said all she could say in open session was that she was charged with potential employment issues and whether employees’ actions “ran afoul of the law.” She said her investigation would involve speaking to CMEEC employees and people outside the organization and cautioned that the integrity of the investigation could be compromised if those sources or topics of discussion were revealed.
Following the two-hour, 15-minute closed-door session, the group elected Goldstein as chairwoman and scheduled meetings for 1 p.m. Jan. 4 and Jan. 23 to prepare to update the full board of directors at its Jan. 24 meeting.