April 25, 2013

Bill Nemitz: The charade unravels for Mr. Dazzle and Deceive

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.

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