NPU settlement involved sexual harassment claims against Sullivan

Norwich — The $35,000 settlement paid by Norwich Public Utilities in 2016 stemmed from a sexual harassment complaint filed by a female NPU employee against then-utilities commission Chairman James Sullivan, in which she alleged he made sexually explicit comments and suggestions and threatened her job.

The Day received the original four-page complaint, filed Sept. 16, 2015, this week as part of a Freedom of Information request to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. That request was filed Feb. 16, when the settlement document was released by NPU per order of the state FOI Commission.

In the settlement, NPU paid $35,000 out of utility funds to the woman, who acknowledged that Sullivan did not admit any wrongdoing or violation of any laws. All parties agreed to a confidentiality provision that included not discussing the case "in any manner with the media." The settlement characterized the complaint as one of harassment but did not refer to it as sexual harassment.

The employee, who The Day is not identifying because of the nature of the complaint, declined comment Wednesday.

Reached by phone Wednesday evening, Sullivan cited the confidentiality agreement in the settlement and declined to comment.

In the CHRO complaint, the woman said Sullivan made sexually explicit comments and suggestions to her in November 2014 at a Norwich restaurant. Several NPU employees had gathered after work, and Sullivan and NPU General Manager John Bilda had joined the group. Sullivan sat near the woman and then moved closer. She wrote that she observed that Sullivan was drinking heavily throughout the evening.

She wrote that Sullivan first made a sexually explicit comment to her. He then allegedly told her he was unhappy in his marriage with California Democratic U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez and made a sexually explicit suggestion to the woman. She wrote that she panicked, left the table when her cellphone rang, returned and said she was leaving.

At that point, the woman quoted Sullivan as saying: “You aren’t going anywhere, you are going to sit here and talk to us.” He then allegedly threatened her job and asked: “Do you know who I am? I’m Sully. You sit down and listen to me if you want your job!” the woman wrote in the complaint.

The woman stayed and a coworker tried to calm her as Sullivan again threatened her job, according to the complaint. She wrote that Sullivan then criticized other NPU employees and “kept repeating ‘I am Sully,’” and told her he had to justify her job and salary. The woman said she began to shake and her heart was racing. She got up to leave and she allegedly told Sullivan if he was going to fire her, “then that was what he had to do.” She wrote that she was crying when she left and a co-worker apologized for Sullivan’s comments.

The next day, the woman had planned to not go to work, but her boss told her to come in, and she did. She wrote that she met with NPU General Manager Bilda and told him of the incident. She later was told that Bilda and an attorney met with Sullivan. The attorney told Sullivan “never to engage in that kind of behavior again,” the woman wrote.

The woman wrote that in the months that followed, she had been in the same room with Sullivan a number of times and “each time experienced stress and anxiety.”

“I am submitting this charge,” she wrote in her complaint, “to bring light to the wrongdoing and outrageous conduct of this public official in hopes that he will be held accountable and that no other women will have to endure the extreme humiliation and degradation of his sexual harassment.”

The CHRO complaint was filed Sept. 16, 2015. Sullivan submitted a letter to Bilda on Oct. 9, 2015, resigning from the Norwich Board of Public Utilities Commissioners/Sewer Authority. With that resignation, he also lost his post as chairman of the board of directors of the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative.

Sullivan was chairman of the Norwich utilities commission from January 2008 through his resignation in October 2015, and had served on that board for 16 years. He had been named chairman of the CMEEC board in December 2013.

At the time of his resignation, Sullivan cited demands on his time and the need to focus attention on his career as the principal of JMS Consulting LLC, a federally registered lobbying firm, and his family. His resignation also came two weeks before CMEEC's vote to enter into a business contract with one of Sullivan's lobbying clients. Earlier, Sullivan twice voted on the CMEEC board to approve contracts with another of his lobbying clients.

Sanchez, who has represented California’s 38th District between Los Angeles and Anaheim since 2013, has been an advocate for stronger policies on sexual harassment incidents on Capitol Hill. Sanchez told the Associated Press in November that she was sexually harassed as a “very new” member of Congress in her 30s years ago by a senior member of Congress still serving. Sanchez said the man “outright propositioned me” repeatedly. She said another colleague touched her inappropriately on the House floor.

Sanchez and other congresswomen told the AP that there was no real place to report to, since “ultimately, they’re employed by their constituents.” Two weeks after the Nov. 3 AP story, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, urged members of Congress to complete sexual harassment training.

As for the allegations against her husband, Sanchez said in a written statement Thursday that they "have addressed this as a family."

"It does not affect my views on the need for serious change in how we deal with and put an end to workplace harassment,” Sanchez said.

Norwich City Manager John Salomone said Norwich regularly requires sexual harassment training for city employees. But while board and commission members have been asked to take online ethics training, no such training is required for volunteer board and commission members.

Salomone and Bilda also cited the confidentiality agreement in declining to comment on the release of the initial sexual harassment complaint.

On Tuesday, the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners addressed the release of the settlement agreement, which referred only to a harassment complaint. Bilda interrupted discussion at one point and objected when board member Robert Staley called it a sexual harassment settlement.

Bilda corrected Staley to say that the settlement referred to a “harassment complaint,” and he was “not certain” where Staley’s comment about sexual harassment came from and whether it was an appropriate characterization. Bilda cautioned that calling it sexual harassment “could be very, very different.”

Bilda refused a request by Staley to discuss the complaint with the board in executive session, citing the confidentiality agreement in the settlement.

On Wednesday, Bilda said his comments at Tuesday’s meeting were in response to speculation about the settlement by people not involved in the issue. He declined to comment further.

c.bessette@theday.com

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