Norwich Ethics Commission finds probable cause in new ethics complaint

Norwich — The Ethics Commission Monday found probable cause that three Norwich Public Utilities officials may have violated the city's ethics code for participating in an October 2015 retreat to the luxury Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, hosted by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative.

NPU General Manager John Bilda, NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko and utilities commission vice chairman Robert Groner attended the 2015 Greenbrier retreat, which cost more than $100,000, according to expense sheets from CMEEC. Norwich utilities commission Chairwoman Dee Boisclair did not attend that trip, and the commission found no probable cause in the complaint against her.

The commission will schedule a public hearing on the complaint, filed by resident Scott Harrington, in the near future.

In February, the Ethics Commission ruled that the four NPU officials and Mayor Deberey Hinchey violated the city's ethics code for their participation in the lavish May 2016 trip to the Kentucky Derby hosted by CMEEC. Hinchey last Wednesday paid the commission's recommended reimbursement of 25 percent of the value of her trip, $1,945.

The Ethics Commission Monday found no probable cause that all four NPU officials violated the ethics code by having their attorney fees in previous ethics complaints paid for by CMEEC. Bills submitted from October through January by attorney Paul McCary in connection with the Norwich ethics response totaled $40,403.

The Ethics Commission ruled that CMEEC's coverage of the attorney fees for the four NPU officials — all four are members of the CMEEC board of directors — are part of their service on that board. The CMEEC bylaws call for the cooperative to provide indemnification to board members for legal issues connected to their service on the CMEEC board.

The CMEEC bylaws that state board members “shall be indemnified and held harmless by CMEEC against all costs and expenses, including reasonable attorney fees and/or defense of suit, actually incurred by them in connection with the defense of any claim, action, suit or proceeding in which they may be involved or to which they may be made a party by reason of their being or having been such Member Representative or Officer.”

The Ethics Commission also voted not to investigate the four NPU officials' participation in past Kentucky Derby trips from 2013 through 2015. Those trips occurred beyond the 18-month time limit for investigating complaints, according to the city's ethics ordinance. Harrington, however, argued that the trips should be investigated because the participants intentionally kept the CMEEC retreats secret and did not report on their activities during Norwich commission meetings.

Bilda sent a two-page letter to the commission in response to Harrington's complaint urging the commission to dismiss Harrington's complaints. He cited the CMEEC bylaws indemnification clause and said the ethics commission guidelines that respondents in ethics complaints provide their own defense: “means that the city will not provide legal representation; this does not override the CMEEC's guidelines to pay the appropriate legal fees for its board.”

In reference to past Kentucky Derby trips, Bilda wrote that “at least four members of the City Council” were aware of last year's Kentucky Derby trip, some as early as late spring.

“The insinuation that there was any concealment of the CMEEC trip is both groundless and reckless,” Bilda wrote. “With the majority of the Council discussing this trip with Mr. Bilda nearly 10 months ago, it is likely that more members of the Council knew about this trip than any other trip ever taken by an NPU or CMEEC official.”

In his letter, Bilda also accused Ethics Commission member Gregory Schlough of having “significant conflicts of interest and highly objectionable conduct.” Bilda wrote that Schlough is a vendor with a “longstanding and extensive business relationship with NPU, a fact that he has never disclosed publicly,” and that he has questioned and complained about NPU's bidding practices and “aggressively” advocated for more business.

Bilda wrote that NPU would “more fully substantiate” the details of the allegations at a later date and with “the appropriate parties.”

Schlough did not attend Monday's Ethics Commission meeting. He participated in the initial ethics complaint hearing and deliberations that found the four NPU officials in violation of the city ethics code.

Reached later Monday night, Schlough said he has no comment about the allegations at this time, but will address them in the near future.

c.bessette@theday.com

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