Norwich utilities commission explores options on Bilda's status

Norwich — The Board of Public Utilities Commissioners is consulting with its attorney about its options for handling the federal indictment of Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda and will hold a special meeting Thursday “to take appropriate action,” the commission announced Monday.

Bilda was one of five Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials indicted last week on multiple charges in connection with lavish trips the cooperative hosted to the Kentucky Derby and to The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia along with luxury gifts and souvenirs for dozens of top CMEEC staff, board members, their family members and guests.

Collectively, the Kentucky Derby trips cost well over $1 million over four years from 2013 to 2016, and the indictment said CMEEC had made deposits for a 2017 Derby trip before public outcry thwarted those plans and a new state law mandated all CMEEC functions be held within Connecticut.

On Friday, the CMEEC Board of Directors placed cooperative CEO Drew Rankin and Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor on unpaid administrative leave and removed Bilda as a board member in the wake of the grand jury indictments handed down Thursday in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

The Norwich utilities commission will meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at NPU headquarters, 16 S. Golden St. Much of the meeting will be in executive session.

“The (commission) considers the federal indictment of our General Manager a very serious matter,” a statement released Monday by the Norwich commission said. “Our primary objective is to ensure that the integrity of NPU is maintained and that our services continue to be exceptional.”

Mayor Peter Nystrom and a majority of the City Council already have called for Bilda to be removed from his position as the criminal case moves forward. The council does not directly oversee the NPU commission or the utility, but appoints members to the commission.

Bilda has worked for NPU for the past 30 years and was hired as general manager in October 2005. His contract runs through 2021. Bilda announced in October plans to retire in 2019 following a search process for a successor.

Bilda’s contract includes termination language that states the commission must make a “finding of just cause” through an arbitration process before terminating him as general manager.

“Just cause shall mean only dishonesty, conviction of a felony, illegal conduct, gross negligence or material misconduct, or the habitual neglect of duties,” the contract states.

The contract states if Bilda's employment is terminated for just cause, he would be entitled to "a lump sum payment equal to the amount of compensation and benefits accrued and payable as of the effective date of his termination." Bilda's current salary is $198,000.

“The board is committed to ensure that actions taken will be proper and in the best interests of the City of Norwich, its citizens and NPU,” the commission statement said.

Bilda, Rankin, Pryor and former CMEEC board Chairman James Sullivan of Norwich and former board Secretary Edward DeMuzzio were indicted on one count each of conspiracy and three counts each of theft from a program receiving federal funding. CMEEC had received more than $9 million in federal funds from 2010 to 2015, and the six municipalities that own CMEEC also receive federal funding annually.

A second indictment levied the same charges against Rankin and Sullivan for conspiring to reimburse Sullivan for nearly $100,000 in personal and travel expenses using CMEEC funds, falsely calling them lobbying expenses, when Sullivan was not a registered lobbyist for CMEEC.

The conspiracy charges carry maximum penalties of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Each charge of theft from a federally funded program carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

The Norwich commission's statement sought to distance the indictment from the everyday operations of the city-owned utility.

“The Board expresses its gratitude to NPU employees who do a great job every day,” the statement said. “We know they will continue to do so. The Board stands behind you and supports you as we seek to ensure a brighter future.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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