May 24—Three former utility officials convicted on federal theft charges will remain free on bond in anticipation they will appeal their convictions, but they may need to foot the legal costs for those appeals for the first time in the five years since they were indicted.
Former Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative CEO Drew Rankin was sentenced last week to serve 12 months in prison, and former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and former CMEEC board and Norwich utilities commission chairman James Sullivan, each were sentenced to six months.
They were convicted in December 2021 on one count each of theft from a program receiving federal funds in connection with lavish trips hosted by CMEEC to the Kentucky Derby and The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia.
Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer, who had sentenced the three following lengthy hearings on May 16, 17 and 18, on Tuesday granted motions by the defendants’ attorneys to vacate orders that they voluntarily surrender to prison authorities. They will remain free on the $100,000 bonds they each posted when they were indicted in 2018.
Meyer granted the motions “conditioned on the defendants’ filing of timely notices of appeal” to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.
Appeals are due within 14 days of their sentencing dates. Meyer ruled the three defendants are “not likely to flee or pose a danger to the community by remaining free pending appeal.”
“Based on the many complex issues litigated prior to, during, and after trial, their appeals will raise at least one substantial question of law or fact on appeal,” Meyer wrote in his order. He added that an appeal in their favor likely would result in reversal of their convictions or an order for a new trial.
The three still face restitution orders in the convictions. Meyer set a hearing for July 12 on financial restitution the three could be ordered to pay in the theft convictions.
Five former CMEEC officials were indicted on charges of conspiracy and theft from a program receiving federal funds in November 2018 for their roles in CMEEC’s planning and hosting trips to the Kentucky Derby and The Greenbrier in 2014, 2015 and 2016. During the trial in November 2021, federal prosecutors withdrew theft charges connected to the 2016 trips.
The jury acquitted former CMEEC CFO Edward Pryor and former Groton Utilities commissioner Edward DeMuzzio on all charges and convicted Rankin, Bilda and Sullivan on one count each of theft from the 2015 trips. CMEEC called the trips strategic board retreats and used revenues that otherwise would have been divided among member municipal utilities to help stabilize rates for customers.
Rankin and Sullivan still face a second indictment on theft charges for allegedly using CMEEC funds to reimburse Sullivan for nearly $100,000 in personal expenses, including travel between Connecticut and Washington, D.C., where he worked as a lobbyist. Several listed expenses included travel paid by CMEEC for his wife, California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez.
That case, also before Meyer, was put on hold pending completion of the larger case. This week, Meyer instructed attorneys for Rankin and Sullivan to confer on their schedules by June 2, but the trial is not expected to begin before Aug. 21.
Throughout the criminal investigation and trial, CMEEC has been paying legal fees totaling several million dollars for all the defendants. Language in the CMEEC bylaws at the time covered officers and directors in any allegations of wrongdoing. CMEEC has been embroiled in a separate federal civil lawsuit with its insurance company, National Union Fire Insurance Co. of Pittsburgh, over the company’s initial refusal to cover the costs under the cooperative’s policy.
On May 18, following the sentencings, the CMEEC board of directors voted to limit any further legal coverage payments for the three defendants only to the restitution and sentencing issues related to the criminal trial.
The minutes for the vote state: “CMEEC to deny, absent a binding court order and/or further Board action, any advancement of defense costs to the three convicted defendants for any proceedings arising from or relating to the criminal proceeding in which they were found guilty and sentenced, including in connection with any appellate proceeding relating to the underlying criminal trials.”
David Meisinger, CEO of CMEEC, said Wednesday that through April 30, CMEEC has advanced approximately $9.2 million in defense costs on behalf of the five defendants, of which CMEEC has recovered approximately $5.2 million from its insurance company to date.
In October 2021, on the eve of the criminal trial, the judge in the civil insurance coverage case ruled the insurance company had breached its contract and was obligated to reimburse CMEEC for the costs. National Union has been reimbursing CMEEC for costs it deems “reasonable,” but the two parties continue to battle over the amounts reimbursed and CMEEC’s argument that the insurance company should pay the attorneys directly, avoiding the need for CMEEC to be “the middleman” in handling the legal fees.
On March 29, Judge Janet Bond Arterton put an administrative hold on the pending civil trial to litigate the “reasonable costs” dispute until the conclusion of the criminal proceedings.