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CMEEC reappoints current officers over objections

November 16, 2018

Norwich — Last week’s federal indictment of five current and former officials of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative dominated parts of the board of directors’ annual meeting Thursday, including a failed attempt by one member to overhaul board officer positions to remove those connected with the lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a luxury golf resort that led to the criminal charges.

Paul Yatcko, general manager of South Norwalk Electric and Water, said CMEEC needs to show the public, ratepayers in the six municipal utilities that own the cooperative and state lawmakers that the organization is making changes to address the serious charges.

CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin, CMEEC Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor, Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face federal charges in indictments in U.S. District Court in New Haven, announced Nov. 8, in connection with lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and to The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia, as well as gifts and souvenirs given to dozens of participants.

Rankin and Sullivan face a second indictment on similar charges related to Sullivan’s personal expenses totaling nearly $100,000 charged to CMEEC.

Yatcko on Thursday objected to a proposed slate of four board officers — three of whom attended at least part of the controversial trips but were not indicted — and recommended officers be selected who did not take part in the trips. Yatcko, who never attended the trips, offered to serve as chairman.

But in two 10-5 roll call votes, the board approved the slate of officers and committee appointments, with Chairman Kenneth Sullivan, director of utilities for Jewett City Department of Public Utilities; Vice Chairman Ron Gaudet, director of Groton Utilities and Bozrah Light & Power; Secretary Louis Demicco of Jewett City, and Treasurer Kevin Barber, general manager of South Norwalk Third Taxing District Electric Department.

Of the four, only Barber never attended the trips. Gaudet attended only one day of CMEEC activities at the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

After the federal indictments were handed down last Thursday, the CMEEC board held two emergency meetings Thursday and Friday and voted unanimously to place Rankin and Pryor on unpaid administrative leave and removed Bilda from the board of directors.

The list of officers approved Thursday, Nov. 15, included CMEEC management staff with “Chief Executive Officer Drew Rankin/Interim CEO Mike Lane” listed. Lane also was listed as the chief financial officer. Pryor had announced last spring plans to retire in January — six months prior to the Nov. 8 indictments — and was not listed on the 2019 management staff.

In his strongly worded statement, Yatcko said CMEEC also needs to come to the realization that “we may well have seen the last of (Rankin)” and need to prepare for that future.

In response to questions about Rankin, CMEEC General Counsel Robin Kipnis said: “As of now, Drew Rankin has not been removed from his position as CEO.”

Yatcko said reappointing the same board leaders also would send the wrong message to ratepayers and lawmakers, who could consider proposed legislation to eliminate CMEEC in the spring legislative session. CMEEC was created in a 1976 act of the General Assembly.

“Damage has been done to the CMEEC brand and reputation in the state and our communities,” Yatcko said, “damage to our image in the legislature, the resulting intrusion into our governance and increased cost to the legislative response to the situation, astronomical legal and consulting and lobbying costs that have been incurred to defend what very well could be an indefensible position, and most recently an evolving threat to CMEEC’s very existence.”

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, proposed legislation earlier this week to consider tighter controls on CMEEC or even to abolish the organization.

“That the majority of the CMEEC Board of Directors chose to disregard the seriousness of this situation and turn a blind eye to the federal charges brought by the FBI rather than acknowledge the need for a complete overhaul is unconscionable,” Somers, who did not attend the CMEEC meeting, said in a statement Thursday evening. “This organization continues to affirm that it is unable or unwilling to understand its own culpability or empathize with the ratepayers it serves. They continue to make it more likely that a legislative remedy is the only recourse.”

To exemplify that point, Norwalk CMEEC board member David Westmoreland told the board that Norwalk utilities officials have asked to meet with Norwalk area state legislators and have been refused.

“They do not want to meet with anyone connected with the scandal,” Westmoreland said. “It’s problematic.”

During the public comment period, Michael Boucher of Groton applauded Yatcko’s effort to change board leadership and called for further overhaul to replace some members of the board. State legislation enacted in 2017 gave governing boards in each municipality within the cooperative direct appointments of ratepayer representatives to the CMEEC board. Boucher said the municipalities need to consider new appointments — “real ratepayer representatives,” he said — for those positions.

On Thursday, Norwich ratepayer representative Rashid Haynes did not attend the annual meeting. Groton ratepayer representative Mark Oefinger voted to approve the current slate of officers, as did Norwich regular CMEEC board members Grace Jones and Stewart Peil. Groton members split their votes, with Gaudet voting in favor of the current slate and Groton City Mayor Keith Hedrick and David Collard, general manager of utility finance for Groton and Bozrah utilities, voted against adopting the current slate of officers. Norwalk ratepayer representative Pete Johnson also voted in favor of the current slate of officers.

Board Chairman Kenneth Sullivan, who has no relation to James Sullivan, started Thursday’s annual meeting by reading a statement saying the board takes the indictments seriously. In the resolution adopted last week, the board directed CMEEC General Counsel Kipnis to conduct an internal investigation. On Thursday, Kenneth Sullivan said the board has hired an independent counsel, Eileen Duggan of the firm Suisman Shapiro, to conduct the 30-day internal investigation.

Duggan is listed as head of the law firm’s labor, employment and municipal law departments.

During a board recess prior to going into executive session, Kenneth Sullivan, in response to Yatcko’s statement, said all board members are working hard on behalf of CMEEC, especially in the past week in response to the federal indictments.

“My personal opinion is, if it’s me or somebody else, we all have a lot of work to do,” Kenneth Sullivan said. “It’s about the work.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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