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Breaking down the federal corruption investigation that sent 3 CT execs to prison

American Pharoah, with Victor Espinoza up, wins the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Mark Cornelison / Lexington Herald-Leader
Tribune News Service / Getty
American Pharoah, with Victor Espinoza up, wins the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Saturday, May 2, 2015.

The former board chairperson of a Connecticut energy cooperative and estranged husband of a California congresswoman was recently sentenced to six months in prison for using public funds to pay for lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a luxury golf resort.

James Sullivan, 56, a one-time Democratic congressional candidate in Connecticut, was convicted of helping plan trips in 2015 and 2016 for dozens of top staff, board members and family members totaling $800,000. Prosecutors said the trips were unrelated to the business of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative (CMEEC), which receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Claire Bessette, a reporter with The Day, was one of the reporters who broke the story.

“We learned they had $10,000 dinners, (a) limousine, (and a) chartered jet,” Bessette said.

Sullivan and John Bilda formerly managed utilities in the town of Norwich. They both received a six month sentence and three years of probation. Former CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin received a higher sentence. “He was the one who came up with the idea, ordered all the tickets set, the itineraries made all the invitations,” Bessette said. “He received a 12-month sentence with also three years of probation.”

She said the controversy has resulted in big changes.

“The CMEEC board of directors changed all their policies, changed all their bylaws that require now any and all retreats to be within state of Connecticut to be budgeted ... to be talked about,” Bessette said. The legislature also added new guardrails, she said, including a ratepayer advocate who goes to all meetings and ratepayer representatives who are not directly from the utilities, but are appointed by the cities and towns.

An appeal is expected to be filed by the former leaders of the energy cooperative. In a court filing, a judge allowed the men to remain free on bond, while they try to appeal their case.

Attorneys for the three men have said the trips were just the cost of doing business. “These defendants argue that CMEEC had state authority to act as a corporation,” Bessette said. “And, corporations do these retreats all the time. The argument against was that, 'No, the statute that created CMAC, created a cooperative to allow these little utilities to work together to procure better wholesale electricity.'”

Sullivan has apologized in court and called the trips “a serious lapse of judgment," according to The Day.

Bessette said there's a second indictment for Rankin, the former CEO, and Sullivan, the former board chairman. “For all kinds of personal expenses that the government is alleging that CMEEC reimbursed Sullivan for," Bessette said. "All kinds of travel costs for him, for his wife, who is a California congressman, travel for her, travel for him, personal expenses for him. It's almost $100,000. That indictment, that trial, is still pending.”

Connecticut Public Radio's Matt Dwyer and The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story has been updated.

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.

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