NPU, General Manager Bilda working on separation agreement

Norwich — The utilities commission met for nearly two and a half hours behind closed doors Thursday to negotiate a separation agreement with Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda but emerged without a final agreement.

Board Chairwoman Grace Jones said the board hopes to resolve all issues by its regular meeting on Jan. 22.

Following another two-hour, closed-door session on Dec. 28, the board had authorized Jones to sign a term sheet outlining a framework for a separation agreement. But NPU spokesman Chris Riley said after Thursday's meeting that changes were made to that document that are still being negotiated with Bilda's attorneys.

"Where we are tonight is that we do not have a document in order to release any details," Jones said. "It's still in the process. Our attorney has helped us a great deal. We will continue to work to have a document, and look forward to our next regular meeting to have closure."

The board met behind closed doors with board attorney Anthony Palermino to discuss the proposed agreement. Bilda and his attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, did not attend Thursday's session, but Riley said they made calls to Bilda's attorneys.

Bilda, 54, was one of five Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials indicted Nov. 8 on federal corruption charges for their leadership roles in CMEEC’s hosting of lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for four years. A month before the indictments, Bilda had announced his plans to retire sometime in 2019 following a transition process.

Bilda, the former vice chairman of the CMEEC board of directors, was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 15 by the Norwich Board of Public Utilities Commissioners in the wake of the indictments. Assistant General Manager Chris LaRose was named acting general manager the same night.

Bilda, CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin, Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face one count each of conspiracy and three counts each of theft from a program receiving federal funds. Rankin and Sullivan face the same charges in a second indictment involving alleged reimbursement by CMEEC for nearly $100,000 in Sullivan’s personal expenses and travel costs.

The indictments stem from a two-year FBI investigation into CMEEC and member utility finances after public outcry over the trips in fall of 2016. CMEEC hosted the trips for top staff, board members, their families, invited guests and public officials from throughout the state. The indictments put the combined cost of the trips over four years at $1.1 million for travel, lodging, tickets and expensive gifts for participants.

The indictments also pertained to CMEEC’s hosting a board retreat to The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia in October 2015 that also included expensive gifts — including $3,426.80 to BMTees, owned by Bilda’s wife, Debra Bilda, to purchase custom golf balls and hats imprinted with the faces of several of the invited guests.

Bilda, a Norwich native and resident, worked with NPU for his entire professional electrical engineering career. He was named general manager in 2006 and, for much of his career, both he and NPU enjoyed strong reputations, with swift response to storm outages and other emergencies.

Norwich was one of the first towns wholly restored to power following hurricanes Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. NPU crews have traveled the country, and to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, to restore power in storm-ravaged areas. NPU also sent natural gas teams to Lawrence, Mass., following the gas explosions and fires in recent weeks.

Bilda often attended national conferences on utilities issues and testified and met with congressional leaders on energy issues. Locally Bilda was tapped by then-Mayor Deberey Hinchey and the City Council to serve dually as city manager and NPU general manager for a year, from February 2016 to February 2017.

That all changed in 2016, when news about the CMEEC Kentucky Derby trips became public.

Other controversies also surfaced. Bilda led an internal NPU investigation in 2016 that led to payment of a $35,000 settlement with NPU funds to an NPU employee in a sexual harassment complaint filed against Sullivan, who was serving as Norwich utilities commission chairman at the time.

Ethics complaints were filed against Bilda, Hinchey, Division Manager Steve Sinko and utilities board Chairwoman Dee Boisclair and Robert Groner, all of whom attended the 2016 Kentucky Derby trip. All five were found in violation of the city ethics code. Hinchey paid the city the $1,932.50 recommended by the Ethics Commission.

Bilda issued a public apology in September 2017 for his participation in the trips and also donated $15,000 — the estimated cost of the 2016 derby trip for him and his wife — to the Thames Valley Council for Community Action for fuel assistance to low-income families.

In September, a month before Bilda announced his plans to retire in 2019, the AFSCME Council 4 union representing NPU supervisors filed three state labor complaints against Bilda for allegedly threatening the union president and for negotiating a new high-level supervisory position and raise for Sinko without going through the union.

Acting General Manager LaRose rescinded both the raise and the promotion for Sinko as one of his first actions, and the union withdrew all three complaints.

c.bessette@theday.com

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