Newport Utilities discover federal investigation under way

The Newport Utilities Board meeting Tuesday was told federal investigators have joined the probe into “alleged irregularities” at the utility.

In October of last year, the board was informed Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson had begun an investigation into the utility. The board voted to place then-General Manager Glenn Ray on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

Few details have been released regarding the investigation because the comptroller’s office has placed a gag order on the board. In January of this year, Ray submitted a letter of retirement, saying he had been presented with other opportunities. The board agreed to accept the letter as a resignation, finding Ray was not eligible for retirement benefits.

While Ray was on administrative leave, Michael Williford was appointed interim general manager. He told the board during the Monday meeting, “I was under the understanding that the comptroller was coming today and that we would have their investigators here. When I got in today, I was actually handed a federal subpoena, and so we do have federal investigators in the building today.”

Attorney Jeff Greene, who represents NU, was in attendance at the meeting. He told the board, “We are still in our open meeting right now, but I would like when we end this meeting to go into executive session and discuss the federal investigators who are in the building today, and the federal subpoena.”

Later in the meeting, the board offered Williford the general manager position. He was presented with a three-year contract for his consideration which sets his salary at $175,000 annually, and would also include back pay to November 2019 when he was appointed to the interim position.

Williford also told the board the utility has again begun cutting off services to those with delinquent accounts. Cutoffs had been ended during the coronavirus pandemic because of the number of customers who were out of work.

“We have to do that. We still pay for our power and the expense of water. We worked with everyone we could if we didn’t get a payment plan in place everybody else would have to pay for it if we don’t do that.” But he said the utility is open to work with customers who are having problems if they call customer service and negotiate a payment plan.

The board agreed to apply for a federal grant of up to $10 million over 10 years to provide broadband to underserved areas.

Plans had called for putting a wireless tower for broadband in the Point Pleasant community, but that site has been removed from planned sites because of a conflict with FAA air space regulations. That tower will now be erected in the Edwina community.

In other NU news, Newport Utilities has closed its lobby to the public until further notice. This action was taken out of concern for the safety of NU’s customers and employees.

Interim General Manager Michael Williford told the NU board of directors earlier this week the utility would not be able to provide services if employees become infected with the coronavirus.

The NU drive-thru will be open 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. NU customers may also use the payment kiosk located in the driveway between Newport Utilities and Lowland Credit Union. The payment kiosk is available 24 hours a day and accepts payment by check, cash, or credit or debit card.

For additional payment options, customers should visit www.newportutilities.com.