Cobb EMC management accused of trying to manipulate board member elections

Cobb EMC management has been accused of trying to manipulate the outcome of board of directors elections by influencing key endorsements in the races just weeks before the March 31 vote.

The co-op and an EMC membership group handling the endorsements deny the allegations made by some EMC members, who say the situation harks back to a time when the utility was controlled by former CEO Dwight Brown, who is under indictment on multiple fraud charges.

Some candidates running for the six available seats on the 10-member board say the co-op’s leaders pushed employees who are also EMC members to support certain candidates during two candidate-vetting sessions this week.

The sessions, held by the Cobb EMC Owners Association, yield an association-endorsed candidate for each seat. All four of the owners association’s endorsed candidates won election to the board last year.

To increase participation in the process, the association allowed all EMC members -- not just association members — to cast votes.

Some candidates who were not among the top vote-getters allege the votes were skewed toward candidates supported by the EMC’s management.

“There is the appearance that [the EMC employees] voted as a bloc for a candidate,” said Jim Hudson, a candidate who lost out on the endorsement during Tuesday’s session. “It has raised a lot of suspicion about whether someone has organized this.”

Hudson, along with David Lombrozo, another candidate for the same seat, said the EMC employees, who sat in a group during the vetting sessions, were heard asking each other which candidate they were supposed to support. He said the co-op’s leaders appeared to want to block candidates who had pushed for strong reform, including a forensic audit, of the utility.

“It appears [the EMC] has shanghaied the process and figured out a way to thwart the election,” Lombrozo said.

About 170 Cobb EMC employees are also EMC members, and about 45 of them attended the first vetting session Tuesday, according to co-op spokesman Sam Kelly. About 30 EMC employees attended a second session Thursday.

“Since it was a secret ballot, I’m sure all Cobb EMC employee/members made their own decisions when voting,” Kelly said. “I am not aware of any push to support.”

David Welden, one of the owners association leaders who helped coordinate the vetting sessions, called the allegations "malicious."

Welden said he was approached by Hudson regarding the voting allegations, and then monitored the group of employees at the second session Thursday and found no signs of wrongdoing.

“If there was anything wrong going on, they really fooled the heck out of me,” he said.

The board elections set for March 31 are the final round set in motion by a 2007 lawsuit filed by a group of co-op members.

Dianne Bracken, one of the plaintiffs in the 2007 lawsuit, received calls and emails about the allegations.

“It makes me sick at heart,” she said. “One of the things we wanted [was for] employees to be correctly treated and not possibly manipulated. It appears there is the possibility of something going on.”

Lombrozo has decided to remain in the race. Hudson has asked the owners association to reconsider its endorsements; the association reserves the right to do so.

The vote is unlikely to be overturned at this point, Welden said, but the association leaders are meeting this weekend to discuss the situation.

The story so far

The March 31 elections will mean an entirely new board of directors for Cobb EMC, a Marietta co-op that was sued by a group of members in 2007. That lawsuit alleged former CEO Dwight Brown and other co-op leaders unlawfully profited from establishing a for-profit affiliate company. A 2008 settlement restarted the membership meetings and board elections that had been stalled because of the ongoing litigation. Last year four reform candidates were elected to the board, and all of the remaining incumbent candidates decided not to seek re-election. Brown retired as CEO last year, and is awaiting trial in a criminal case on fraud charges. He has asked the utility to pay him $1.8 million in a consulting contract with the company. The EMC is disputing the payment and the contract.

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