Over several decades as a power plant promoter in Wyoming, Colorado and California Michael J. Ruffatto has shown himself to be a politically savvy master of delay.
The latest came this month when Pittsburgh U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti continued until April 18 Ruffatto’s sentencing for criminal fraud – a remarkable seventh sentencing delay since Ruffatto pleaded guilty in October 2016.
Both government prosecutors and Ruffatto defense attorneys claim that the delays will allow the Colorado-based lawyer and businessman to raise an estimated $8 to $10 million in civil penalties.
The government insists that Ruffatto also receive a minimum of three years in prison for his crime of stealing more than $5.7 million from a 2009-2010 federal stimulus grant that was supposed to study carbon sequestration in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.
But Ruffatto’s Denver-based attorneys are hoping that Judge Conti will consider his penalty payment of more than twice the money he stole and sentence him to probation instead of prison.
The lawyers have also argued that the 72-year-old Ruffatto’s health and family responsibilities should be considered, stating that at his age and physical condition, a prison term would be tantamount to a death sentence. The case is assigned to Pennsylvania federal court because the stimulus grant was awarded by the National Energy Technology Laboratory outside Pittsburgh.
The most recent sentencing delay came in a sealed motion by federal prosecutors. But it fits a consistent history of extended deadlines on seemingly doomed projects that has long marked Ruffatto’s career. (See Two Elk Saga).
Ironically, Ruffatto even missed the government deadline when he applied for the stimulus grant in 2008, but was inexplicably given a special extension by the Department of Energy.
Ruffatto’s long ballyhooed Two Elk power plant project south of Gillette was first proposed in 1997 and won multiple construction permit extensions from Wyoming officials until it was finally abandoned in 2016, after Ruffatto pleaded guilty to stealing millions of dollars from the federal research grant and using the money on personal luxuries.
In 2012, Ruffatto’s Colorado-based North American Power Group Ltd., after failing to meet numerous deadlines, lost its contract from the Marin Energy Authority in Northern California to build a solar power facility.
Despite clear and forceful assertions from Marin officials that the solar project was dead, Ruffatto blithely insisted that it still had a pulse. “We don’t think we are in default nor that it was an effective cancellation of the contract,” Ruffatto told the Marin Independent Journal in 2013. Nonetheless, the contract remained cancelled.
To help in his effort to keep his Two Elk power plant project alive, Ruffatto in 2006 hired Brad Enzi — son of Wyoming U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi — to represent him in the state. He also gave generously to the campaigns of two Wyoming governors, Democrat Dave Freudenthal ($3,000 in 2006) and Republican Matt Mead ($12,000 in 2010).
In the fall of 2010, Ruffatto hosted a fundraiser at his Cherry Hills Village estate outside Denver for the “Wyoming for Matt Mead” campaign. The cocktail fundraiser was organized by Danielle Enzi, wife of Brad Enzi who, before the couple’s divorce in 2013, was also the chief fundraiser for Sen. Mike Enzi.
Senator Enzi has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the Two Elk dealings, claiming that he has never met Ruffatto, who was Brad Enzi’s employer for more than 10 years.
In addition to the Two Elk and Marin cases, Ruffatto’s career as a power plant developer is peppered with missed deadlines, project cancellations, and announcements of ambitious projects that were never built, including six additional phantom power plants in Wyoming alone.
Ruffatto’s power plant ambitions finally hit a wall in August 2016 when he was charged with criminal fraud in Pittsburgh, Pennslyvania, federal court.
“Records show that millions of dollars [from the stimulus grant] were never used on the project,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Houghton said at the 2016 plea hearing, “but spent and dissipated by the defendant on extravagant personal expenses, totally unrelated to the project, including payments for the defendant’s personal residence in Englewood Colorado, payments for the defendants Mercedes Benz, payments for personal purchases at Neiman Marcus, payments for carpeting worth thousands of dollars, payments for expensive jewelry, and payments for the defendant’s international travel.”
Federal officials have declined to respond to WyoFile’s question about whether the federal stimulus funds were also used for Ruffatto’s Dec. 8, 2010 $12,000 donation to Matt Mead’s gubernatorial campaign, one of the largest individual contributions Mead received in his first run for governor.
In an interview, Gov. Mead said he did not recall meeting Ruffatto, even at the fundraiser in Ruffatto’s sprawling home in the horsey suburbs south of Denver.
“I must have been introduced to him as the host, but there were a lot of people there,” Mead said. Mead said he remembers being introduced at the event by former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens but does not specifically remember Ruffatto. He said he did not even recognize Ruffatto when recently shown a photograph by one of his staff.
However, Mead said he did recall later meeting with Brad Enzi and that Enzi briefed him on the Two Elk power plant project.
For his part, Ruffatto spends most of his time in Newport Beach, California, where he continues to participate in social events, most recently the May 20 $1,250-a-plate “Art of Dining” benefitting the Orange County Museum of Art.