Opin­ion:

These men are en­ti­tled to their day in court. But there is no doubt that their con­duct was wrong and a breach of pub­lic trust. The only ques­tion is whether it can be proved to be crim­i­nal.

The Day - - BUSINESS -

The ag­gres­sive re­port­ing that un­cov­ered cor­rup­tion among lo­cal util­ity ex­ec­u­tives, lead­ing to an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion and Thurs­day’s in­dict­ments, again showed the im­por­tance of a free press and the dan­ger posed if it dis­ap­pears from the lo­cal scene.

I t was cor­rup­tion in plain sight. The au­dac­ity stun­ning. For sev­eral years ex­ec­u­tives as­so­ci­ated with an en­ergy-pur­chas­ing co­op­er­a­tive in­tended to hold down costs for ratepay­ers of mu­nic­i­pally owned util­i­ties in­stead used it as their pri­vate slush fund. They tapped its re­sources to take ex­trav­a­gant an­nual trips to the Ken­tucky Derby and for other over-the-top jun­kets.

This con­duct was more than in­ap­pro­pri­ate and un­eth­i­cal, it was crim­i­nal, or so con­cluded a grand jury that looked at the ev­i­dence com­piled dur­ing a two-year FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

In­dict­ments un­sealed Thurs­day in U.S. Dis­trict Court in New Haven charged five ex­ec­u­tives with crimes that in­clude theft from a pro­gram re­ceiv­ing fed­eral funds, aid­ing and abet­ting crim­i­nal con­duct and con­spir­acy.

In­dicted were Drew Rankin, CEO of the Con­necti­cut Mu­nic­i­pal Elec­tric En­ergy Co­op­er­a­tive; Edward Pryor, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer of the co­op­er­a­tive; James Sul­li­van, a for­mer Nor­wich rep­re­sen­ta­tive to CMEEC and for­mer chair­man of its board of directors; John Bilda, Nor­wich Pub­lic Util­i­ties gen­eral man­ager and for­mer vice chair­man of the CMEEC board of directors; and Edward DeMuzzio, for­mer Gro­ton Util­i­ties rep­re­sen­ta­tive and board sec­re­tary.

On Fri­day CMEEC an­nounced that Rankin and Pryor had been placed on un­paid ad­min­is­tra­tive leave pend­ing an in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion. This is long over­due and should lead to their fir­ing. Bilda was re­moved as a mem­ber from the board, an­other ap­pro­pri­ate move.

Bilda re­cently an­nounced his re­tire­ment planned for 2019 when a re­place­ment is hired. He should step down now or be re­moved by his board with an as­so­ciate, some­one clear of the scan­dal, el­e­vated to act­ing gen­eral man­ager of NPU.

These men are en­ti­tled to their day in court. But there is no doubt that their con­duct was wrong and a breach of pub­lic trust. The only ques­tion is whether it can be proved to be crim­i­nal. As for who pays for their de­fense, it should be the in­di­vid­u­als, not CMEEC or the mu­nic­i­pal util­i­ties.

Our ex­pec­ta­tion is the of­fice of Con­necti­cut Chief State’s At­tor­ney Kevin Kane, hav­ing let the FBI take the lead, is look­ing into whether state laws were vi­o­lated by the mis­use of these pub­lic funds. The pol­icy of the of­fice is not to com­ment on mat­ters that may or may not be un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

CMEEC is col­lec­tively owned by six mu­nic­i­pal util­i­ties: NPU, Gro­ton Util­i­ties, Bozrah Light & Power, Jewett City Depart­ment of Pub­lic Util­i­ties, and two Nor­walk util­i­ties.

The de­fen­dants were re­leased on $100,000 bonds. We were aghast, how­ever, that U.S. Mag­is­trate Judge Robert Spec­tor, while im­pos­ing travel re­stric­tions, will al­low Rankin to go for­ward with a planned three-week trip to New Zealand and Aus­tralia, start­ing later this month. A dou­ble stan­dard for the treat­ment of white-col­lar crim­i­nal de­fen­dants and the com­mon crim­i­nally ac­cused per­sists.

It is also ap­pro­pri­ate to point to the im­por­tance of an ag­gres­sive lo­cal press in dis­clos­ing this mis­con­duct and pro­vid­ing the leads that re­sulted in the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Day Staff Writer Claire Bes­sette has doggedly pur­sued the facts and used Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion laws to un­cover con­duct and ex­pen­di­tures that would have oth­er­wise re­mained se­cret.

This is why the First Amend­ment pro­tects a free press. Cor­rup­tion grows where there is no sun­light. At the lo­cal level that sun­light is pro­vided by the com­mu­nity news­pa­per. No home­spun Face­book page or blog­ger sit­ting at home with a lap­top will ex­e­cute the in­ves­ti­ga­tory jour­nal­is­tic skills nec­es­sary to get at in­for­ma­tion like this.

Tech­nol­ogy and mar­ket changes have placed lo­cal news­pa­pers un­der great strain. The Day Pub­lish­ing Com­pany, owned by a split-in­ter­est trust with the twin mis­sions of pro­vid­ing news and mak­ing char­i­ta­ble do­na­tions, is in a bet­ter po­si­tion to han­dle these tec­tonic shifts and still pro­vide qual­ity cov­er­age, but it is not im­mune to them.

Fig­ur­ing out how to sup­port and pro­vide for pro­fes­sional and ag­gres­sive lo­cal news re­port­ing will be an on­go­ing chal­lenge that must be met for the good of a healthy democ­racy.

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