Back in the fall of 2011, only weeks before his reign over this newspaper disintegrated into so many pathetic pieces, Rich Connor leaned over to ask me something at the start of a Maine Press Association awards banquet.
Pointing discreetly to a gentleman sharing the table with me and several Press Herald colleagues, Connor whispered, “Who’s that guy over there?”
I told him it was Matt DeRienzo, who grew up in Westbrook and was then the rising-star publisher of the Register Citizen, a daily newspaper in northwest Connecticut. Earlier in the day, long before Connor arrived, DeRienzo had presented a keynote address on a number of fascinating innovations he’d implemented to engage readers and boost his newspaper’s bottom line.
Connor nodded, half-listening.
“Right,” he said impatiently. “But does he matter?”
Mystified by the question, I quietly replied that yes, I would say the guy mattered.
It was as if I’d flipped a switch: Without another word, Connor bolted around to the other side of the table — his smile set on dazzle, his eyes on twinkle, his legendary charm oozing from every pore.
“Hi!” he exclaimed, extending one hand while placing the other on DeRienzo’s shoulder. “I’m Rich Connor!”
I thought about that exchange Thursday when Lisa DeSisto, MaineToday Media’s new-and-much-improved chief executive officer and publisher, told first the company’s employees and later the world what many of us have long known:
Rich Connor, the man who claimed to the bitter end that he was the best thing that ever happened to this newspaper, was in reality something far different.
The good news: Under the company’s theft insurance policy, DeSisto announced, Traveler’s Casualty & Surety Co. has paid MaineToday Media $537,988.68 (minus a $50,000 deductible) “as a result of funds (Connor) took from the company for unauthorized personal use during his twenty-seven months with the company.”
The better news: That money, combined with the substantial investments in people and technology by new owner S. Donald Sussman, is fast propelling this newspaper and its sister publications to heights I’ve never seen in my 35 years of working under our proud masthead.
The painfully predictable news: Rich Connor, the man who used company funds to pay for, among many other things, those impeccable teeth, insists we’ve got him all wrong.
In a bizarre comment Wednesday to the Bangor Daily News, Connor claimed the irregularities that led to the Travelers payout were not uncovered by the auditors who were called in after MaineToday Media, on the verge of bankruptcy, finally and unceremoniously showed him the door in October of 2011.
“This was all instigated by me, no one else,” he told the newspaper, referring to questions about where all the money went. “We had an agreement, a verbal agreement, to have accountants working for me and accountants working for (MaineToday Media) to try to sort out a tangled set of financials that involved several newspapers.”
He’s right — those financials looked like so much spaghetti by the time the outside auditors finally arrived. But with Connor presiding over those newspapers — three in Maine and one in Pennsylvania — during the period in question, who but he was responsible for all those tangles?
For those of us who lived through Connor’s charade — the open bar at an employee meet-and-greet just before he trimmed our salaries by 10 percent, the revolving-door procession of chief financial officers who seemed to last only long enough to start asking questions, the newsroom festooned with enough 60-inch flat-screen TVs to fill three sports bars — the “financial self-dealing,” as DeSisto so aptly put it, comes more as confirmation than surprise.
The $287,224 in unauthorized salary increases and bonuses (So that’s where our pay cuts went!), the $90,381 in personal expenses charged to company credit cards, the $70,352 to pay off a personal American Express card, the $36,089 in unauthorized vehicle expenses that included a new Chevy Suburban for Connor’s “consultant” son (it was, Connor now claims, cheaper than renting), the $22,940 for landscaping, dental work and a vacation rental in Camden, the $16,000 for another Camden rental, the $10,000 wire transfer to Himself — all fit perfectly with a man who, like a capsized luxury yacht on beautiful Casco Bay, turned out to be all cabin and no keel.
Nor, truth be told, was Connor much of a newsman.
Just before he arrived here in 2009, Connor bet me a Coke that if I went out on the street and polled 10 people, more than half would say the Press Herald’s news content was dictated daily by the whims and fancies of our major advertisers.
So I hit the bricks and quickly discovered the opposite — seven passers-by said they trusted the newsroom’s integrity, one wasn’t sure and only two agreed with Connor’s jaundiced point of view.
Connor, to his credit, eventually forked over the Coke. But I never lost the nagging feeling that his wheeling and dealing wasn’t really about saving a newspaper that has faithfully served this community for 150 years.
No sir, it was about Rich Connor. A man who went on to routinely fill these pages with puff pieces about this or that local business (goodbye news hook, hello grateful advertiser), a man who surrounded himself with cronies from past deals who knew a gravy train when they hopped aboard one, a man who promised much-needed new technology but, in the end, took the money and ran.
The last time I saw Rich Connor, I was sitting at my desk — just outside his office — pounding out a column in a near-empty newsroom.
Suddenly, he appeared in jeans and a well-worn outdoors jacket, rushed into his cavernous corner office (DeSisto’s new digs are 30 percent smaller) and silently departed a few moments later with a cardboard box under his arm.
No smile. No twinkle in the eye. No handshake and slap on the back. Just a man whose world clearly was collapsing all around him.
A man who, at long last, no longer matters.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: