Norwich utilities commission to discuss indictments, general manager's status

Norwich — The city utilities commission will not take public comment at its special meeting Thursday to decide the employment status of Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda, one of five officials with a utility cooperative indicted last week on public corruption charges.

The 6 p.m. meeting of the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, to be held at NPU headquarters at 16 S. Golden St., will convene and move immediately to executive session, before an open session consideration of: “General Manager Employment Disposition.”

Bilda, Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative CEO Drew Rankin, CMEEC Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face federal charges in indictments handed down last Thursday in U.S. District Court in New Haven in connection with lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a West Virginia golf resort, and gifts and souvenirs given to dozens of participants. Rankin and Sullivan face a second indictment on similar charges related to Sullivan’s personal expenses totaling nearly $100,000 charged to CMEEC.

Three weeks prior to the indictment on charges of conspiracy and theft from a program that received federal funds, Bilda, 54, had announced plans to retire from NPU sometime in 2019 with 30 years of service. Under the city’s current retirement plan, employees are allowed full retirement with 25 or more years of service, beginning at age 55. Early retirement at age 54 could be done with a 91 percent pension, according to a Summary of Benefits handbook for the city retirement fund.

However, a state statute titled “Pension Revocation or Reduction for Public Officials and State Municipal Employees” allows the state attorney general to seek pension revocation or reduction of public pensions of state or municipal employees if they are convicted of “crimes related to state or municipal office.”

The statute states that if any state or municipal employee is “convicted of or pleads guilty or nolo contendere to any crime” related to the office in state or federal court, the state attorney general “shall apply to the Superior Court for an order to revoke or reduce the pension of any kind” that the public official otherwise would receive.

The statute describes factors to be considered in determining whether to seek revocation or reduction of a pension, including the severity of the crime and the degree of public trust placed in the public official.

Bilda’s contract with the NPU board includes a provision for termination for cause, defined as “dishonesty, conviction of a felony, illegal conduct, gross negligence or material misconduct or the habitual neglect of duties," following an arbitration process.

The Norwich utilities commission meeting comes one week after the CMEEC Board of Directors met for several hours over two days last Thursday and Friday to discuss the indictments with CMEEC attorneys and the status of Rankin and Pryor’s positions. CMEEC posted minutes of the emergency meetings Wednesday, within the state-mandated 72 business hours following emergency meetings.

The board convened in open session briefly Friday and unanimously approved a resolution placing Rankin and Pryor on unpaid leave and removing Bilda from the board.

The resolution also called for CMEEC General Counsel Robin Kipnis to conduct an internal investigation to be completed within 30 days into “the activities identified in the two federal indictments.”

The CMEEC board initially convened in emergency session last Thursday morning, while the alleged co-conspirators were headed to federal court in New Haven for a 12:30 p.m. arraignment. Some members participated in person and others via telephone conference call, but after hearing a review of the federal indictment process from attorney Joseph Martini, the board recessed to await receipt of the indictments. When the documents hadn’t arrived by 1:30 that afternoon, the board recessed until Friday morning.

On Friday, CMEEC board members reconvened the emergency meeting and discussed the indictments for three hours in a closed-door session before approving the resolution placing Rankin and Pryor on unpaid leave, removing Bilda from the board and instructing Kipnis to conduct an internal investigation.

Michael Lane, CMEEC director of finance and accounting, was named interim CEO and will preside at Thursday's 10 a.m. CMEEC board annual meeting to set the 2019 budget and conduct other business. The meeting, open to the public, will be held at the Spa at Norwich Inn.


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