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 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.