Norwich Public Utilities paid $35K to settle harassment complaint

Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities agreed to pay $35,000 in May of 2016 to settle a harassment complaint filed by a female NPU employee in September 2015 against then-utilities commission Chairman James Sullivan, one month before Sullivan resigned from the commission.

The Day obtained the settlement agreement after an Freedom of Information Act request last June and complaint filed in September under the state FOI Act. The FOI Commission ruled Wednesday that the settlement and related documents are public documents, but ordered the name and identifying information of the complainant to be redacted. NPU released the settlement documents Friday afternoon.

The four-page settlement agreement, signed May 2, 2016, does not spell out the nature of the complaint, except to categorize it as “alleging, among other things harassment in connection with her employment.” The employee had filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities on Sept. 16, 2015, against Norwich Public Utilities, the city of Norwich and Sullivan. The original complaint was not provided in the FOI request, but confirmation of the withdrawal of the complaint based on the settlement was released.

The settlement agreement called for NPU to make two payments, one for $24,000 and issue a 1099 tax document under the category “misc.” A second payment for $11,000 also was made, but blacked out portions of the settlement document made it difficult to determine the nature of that payment.

The settlement document called for a confidentiality agreement by all parties involved, specifically stating “including but not limited to discussing this case in any manner with the media.”

NPU General Manager John Bilda cited the confidentiality agreement and declined to comment on the settlement. Sullivan could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

The settlement was signed by the employee, Sullivan, Bilda and Norwich City Manager John Salomone.

The harassment complaint and the settlement was not presented to the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, NPU officials said. The Day’s initial request for records included an inquiry on whether commissioners took action on either the settlement document or the financial payment, and NPU officials said there were no records of any votes or minutes of any board discussion on the matter.

On Friday, NPU spokesman Chris Riley confirmed that “the settlement was an administrative function driven by NPU’s insurance company and lawyers and did not require board approval.” However, NPU paid for the settlement directly, as the total was below the utility’s insurance carrier’s deductible.

The Day initially filed a Freedom of Information request for documents related to the harassment complaint June 7, 2017. NPU officials acknowledged receipt of the complaint, but did not respond until Aug. 28, refusing to release the documents.

“The disclosure of the personnel documents you have requested would constitute an invasion of personal privacy,” Bilda wrote at the time.

The Day filed an FOI complaint Sept. 7 based on the denial of the original request, and a hearing was held Nov. 13. On Wednesday of this week, the commission approved the five-page decision by Hearing Officer Lisa Siegel ordering NPU to release all requested records on the settlement agreement and financial payment, “redacted to conceal the identity of the complaining witness.”

Siegel reviewed the 10-page settlement and accompanying documents confidentially following the Nov. 13 hearing. She wrote that NPU should have redacted the complainant’s identifying information and “promptly disclosed the remainder of such records to the complainants upon request.” Siegel wrote that it was “not reasonable” to conclude that settlement agreement and financial payment information constituted an invasion of privacy.

During her investigation into The Day’s request, which included any internal investigation report NPU might have conducted into the employee’s complaint, Siegel learned from NPU officials that no investigation report existed. But “notes” drafted by Bilda concerning the incident did exist and “were likely drafted for the purpose of a pending claim.” NPU officials argued that the notes were protected under attorney-client privilege, and Siegel wrote in her decision that arguments over whether the notes should be disclosed could be heard in a subsequent FOI noncompliance appeal.

The Day will file a noncompliance appeal to the FOI Commission for the notes.

Sullivan was chairman of the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners/Sewer Authority from January 2008 through October 2015 and served on that board for 16 years prior to his resignation in October 2015. He also served as chairman of the board of directors of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative from December 2013 until October 2015. His seat on CMEEC was based on his position on the Norwich board.

At the time of his resignation, Sullivan cited demands on his time and the need to focus his attention on his career as the principal of JMS Consulting LLC, a federally registered lobbying firm, and his family. Sullivan is married to U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

Sullivan also participated in the controversial Kentucky Derby trips hosted by CMEEC during his tenure on the boards. CMEEC Derby trip attendance records showed that Sullivan and Sanchez attended the 2013, 2014 and 2015 trips. Sanchez’s congressional office issued a statement in January 2017 saying she participated as the spouse of a board member and that the U.S. House Ethics Committee had confirmed that she could attend.

Sullivan in January 2017 declined to answer any questions regarding the Kentucky Derby trips or his lobbying connections to two entities that did business with CMEEC during his tenure, citing an FBI investigation into CMEEC’s and member municipal utilities’ finances.

Sullivan’s JMS Consulting firm was the paid lobbyist for the Metropolitan District Commission and for solar development firm Brightfields Development LLC. Sullivan twice voted on contracts between CMEEC and a partnership of SolarCity and Brightfields.

CMEEC reached an agreement in October 2015 for management of MDC’s hydropower facilities, but Sullivan did not attend the September 2015 CMEEC board meeting when the contract was presented and had resigned prior to CMEEC’s October vote to approve the contract.

Sullivan has had a long track record of political and civic involvement in the Norwich area in addition to his years on the Norwich and CMEEC boards. He served four years on the City Council in the early 1990s and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2004 as the Democratic challenger to then-incumbent Republican Rob Simmons in the 2nd District. He currently is a corporator for the Norwich Free Academy.

c.bessette@theday.com

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