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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    NPU objects to FOI hearing officer decision to release notes on sexual harassment investigation

    Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities is seeking reversal of a state Freedom of Information hearing officer’s proposed decision that NPU release three pages of notes in the investigation of a 2015 sexual harassment complaint against the then-utilities commission Chairman James Sullivan.

    The Day had requested the notes, written by NPU General Manager John Bilda, following an FOI ruling in February that released the settlement document that included a $35,000 payment by NPU to the NPU employee in the sexual harassment complaint. After an FOI hearing on the notes, Hearing Officer Lisa Fein Siegel wrote in a May 21 proposed decision that three of the four pages of Bilda's notes should be released to The Day. The fourth page, she wrote, was confidential under attorney-client privilege provision in the state FOI Act.

    NPU attorney Sarah Gruber filed an eight-page brief Wednesday asking the FOI Commission to reject Siegel’s proposed final decision that called for releasing the three pages of Bilda's notes.

    Siegel’s proposed decision also said the NPU employee’s name be redacted from the three pages to be disclosed, as it was in the settlement document released to The Day in February.

    The commission will consider the hearing officer’s proposed decision and the NPU appeal at its July 11 meeting in Hartford.

    The Day filed an FOI complaint in September 2017 that resulted in the release of a four-page settlement that included a $35,000 payment by NPU to an employee. The woman had filed a sexual harassment complaint in September 2015 to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against Sullivan.

    Separately in February, The Day obtained the employee's complaint from CHRO but did not disclose the employee's name or position.

    The complaint described Sullivan making sexually explicit comments and suggestions to the employee and threatened her job at an after-work gathering of several employees. Sullivan had served as the City Council appointee to the Board of Public Utilities Commission for 16 years and served for 7½ years before he resigned Oct. 9, 2016, a month after the employee filed the complaint.

    Sullivan is married to U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California.

    The Day’s initial FOI complaint seeking the settlement document included a request that NPU also provide any investigation report into the allegations that led to the negotiated settlement. NPU officials initially testified that there was no internal investigation report.

    Following the Nov. 13, 2017, FOI hearing on the settlement and related documents, NPU attorneys reported to FOI Hearing Officer Siegel the discovery of four pages of “notes” taken by Bilda in response to the complaint. The Day filed a subsequent complaint seeking release of the notes, which NPU officials claimed at an April 23 FOI hearing were protected under attorney-client privilege.

    According to a state Freedom of Information Commission index form describing the notes submitted for confidential review, the first page included the name of the employee who filed the sexual harassment complaint and 20 lines detailing the incident. The second page also contained details of the incident, and the third page contained the name of the complainant and 17 lines of details of the incident.

    The fourth page included the name of the employee and 19 lines detailing the incident. NPU officials wrote that all pages should be considered attorney-client privileged information, but Siegel ruled that only the fourth page was exempt from public disclosure.

    Bilda created the notes after conversations with NPU’s attorney and created the first three pages at the direction of the attorney, and used the notes when he met with the attorney. Bilda claimed he created the fourth page “to memorialize subsequent conversations with the attorney.”

    Siegel reviewed the notes in confidence and wrote that pages one through three were not written communications between a public official or employee and an attorney or the attorney’s agent, and were not prepared by the attorney.

    Siegel also rejected NPU’s claim that releasing the documents would be an invasion of privacy and the information was not of legitimate public concern.

    “It is found that there is a legitimate public interest in the details of a workplace sexual harassment claim involving a high-level public official that gave rise to a $35,000 settlement paid with public funds,” Siegel wrote in the proposed decision.

    In her appeal to the commission, attorney Gruber called the documents “the disputed notes,” and claimed all four pages should be considered attorney-client privilege, or to find that the details of the incident are not of legitimate public concern or would be “highly offensive to a reasonable person.”

    Gruber argued that Bilda created the notes only because the attorney for NPU directed him to do so.

    “NPU’s attorney and the General Manager used those records for the provision of legal advice concerning the alleged sexual harassment claim,” Gruber wrote. “The General Manager kept those notes privileged and private.”

    c.bessette@theday.com