Court hearing postponed in utility cooperative defendants' Kentucky Derby case

·3 min read

May 12—For the second time in two weeks, a U.S. District Court judge in New Haven postponed a planned hearing on defense attorneys' efforts either to overturn guilty verdicts or seek a new trial for three former utility cooperative officials convicted last fall for their roles in 2015 trips to the Kentucky Derby and a West Virginia golf resort.

The hearing tentatively is rescheduled for May 26 in New Haven federal court to hear oral arguments on motions by attorneys for former Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials seeking to overturn guilty verdicts handed down by a jury on Dec. 10.

Former CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin, former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and former CMEEC and NPU board Chairman James Sullivan of Norwich were found guilty on one count each of theft from a program that receives federal funding. Two other defendants, former Groton Utilities commissioner Edward DeMuzzio and former CMEEC CFO Edward Pryor were found not guilty on charges of conspiracy and theft. Rankin, Sullivan and Bilda also were cleared on conspiracy charges and theft charges stemming from the 2014 Derby trip.

CMEEC hosted the lavish trips for dozens of CMEEC officials, municipal leaders, their family members and vendors from 2014 through 2016, with deposits made for a planned 2017 trip that was canceled due to public reaction to news about the trips. Collectively, the trips cost over $1 million. But during the trial, U.S. attorneys dropped theft charges pertaining to the 2016 trip.

An attorney representing Sullivan filed a motion Thursday morning, hours before the scheduled hearing, stating that his spouse had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day, and while he had tested negative, he was experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. A previously scheduled hearing on April 26 was postponed, when an attorney representing Rankin contracted COVID-19.

In granting Thursday's postponement, Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer wrote that the court "wishes counsel and family a speedy recovery."

At the upcoming hearing, attorneys will argue points made in lengthy motions, the defense attorneys seeking to overturn the Dec. 10 verdict or secure a new trial and U.S. prosecuting attorneys arguing that the verdicts should stand.

In their motions, attorneys for Rankin, Sullivan and Bilda argued that federal prosecutors failed to provide evidence that CMEEC received more than $10,000 in federal funding in 2015, failed to prove the defendants had "criminal intent" and failed to show the defendants misappropriated CMEEC property valued at $5,000 or more.

They also claimed the defendants were denied due process because they had "no fair warning" that behavior the attorneys argued was allowed under state statutes "would subject them to the vague, overbroad grasp of" federal law. They argued evidence presented at the November trial showed the trips to the Kentucky Derby and The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia were "approved legitimate corporate expenses in CMEEC's budgets."

U.S. attorneys countered that all evidence presented at the trial was legitimate, pertained to the charges filed and that defense attorneys were properly made aware of the evidence. They argued that "ample evidence" showed that the Derby and Greenbrier trips were personal and not business events.

"The jury heard testimony and saw documents establishing that the defendants took money from CMEEC and spent it on personal trips for themselves, their family, and their friends," U.S. attorneys wrote in one 64-page response to the motions. "One indication of the personal nature of the trips was that the defendants included themselves, their family members, and their friends on the trips, rather than attendees who were actually involved in CMEEC's business."

c.bessette@theday.com

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