NPU's Bilda resigns; board OKs separation agreement

Norwich — After three closed-door discussions over two months, the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners on Tuesday reached final terms of a separation agreement with Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda that pays him a $35,000 severance and allows him to receive full retirement benefits.

Bilda, who had signed the agreement earlier Tuesday, submitted a letter of resignation to the board Tuesday, effective Dec. 31. The board approved both the agreement and the resignation letter unanimously following a 45-minute, closed-door executive session.

"For NPU, the board acknowledges that this agreement may not please everyone," board member Stewart Peil said in a written statement after the vote, "but should please all those who share the board's desire to see a turning of the page, and the start of a new chapter, one that could be NPU's best."

The board did not discuss the agreement in public session. After the meeting, Chairwoman Grace Jones said she looks forward to putting "this horrific process" behind the board and getting NPU back to its normal business.

The agreement calls for Bilda to be paid $18,000 for his claim of "compensatory damages, including emotional distress and loss of enjoyment of life," and $17,000 for attorney fees to the firm Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau, which represented him during the separation negotiations.

Bilda also will receive 864 hours of accrued sick time, 296 hours of vacation time and a $1,000 contribution to his pension.

The agreement allows Bilda to retire effective no later than April 10, 2019.

Bilda, 54, was one of five Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials indicted Nov. 8 on federal corruption charges for their leadership roles in CMEEC’s hosting of lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for four years and to a West Virginia golf resort in October 2015.

Bilda, the former vice chairman of the CMEEC board of directors, was placed on paid administrative leave Nov. 15 by the city utilities commission while the board investigated his role in the controversy. Assistant General Manager Chris LaRose has been serving as acting general manager of NPU.

Bilda, CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin, Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face one count each of conspiracy and three counts each of theft from a program receiving federal funds. Rankin and Sullivan face the same charges in a second indictment involving alleged reimbursement by CMEEC for nearly $100,000 in Sullivan’s personal expenses and travel costs.

The indictments stem from a two-year FBI investigation into CMEEC and member utility finances after public outcry over the trips in fall of 2016. CMEEC hosted the trips for top staff, board members, their families, invited guests and public officials from throughout the state. The indictments put the combined cost of the trips over four years at $1.1 million for travel, lodging, tickets and expensive gifts for participants.

As part of the CMEEC board retreat to The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia in 2015, the indictment stated CMEEC paid $3,426.80 to screen-printing shop BMTees of Norwich, owned by Bilda’s wife, Debra Bilda, for custom golf balls and hats imprinted with the faces of several invited guests.

The separation agreement also states that Jones and Peil, who represent NPU on the CMEEC board of directors, "shall vote to support" any motion or resolution that would entitle Bilda to receive indemnification or advancement of funds to pay for legal costs in the criminal indictments proceeding in federal court.

Bilda, a Norwich native and resident, worked with NPU for his entire 30-year professional electrical engineering career. He was named general manager in 2006, and for much of his career, both he and NPU enjoyed strong reputations.

Norwich was one of the first towns wholly restored to power following storms Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. NPU crews have traveled the country, to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to restore power in storm-ravaged areas. NPU also sent natural gas teams to Lawrence, Mass., following the gas explosions and fires there in September.

Bilda often attended national conferences and testified and met with congressional leaders on energy issues. Locally, he was tapped by then Mayor Deberey Hinchey and the City Council to serve dually as city manager and NPU general manager for a year, from February 2016 to February 2017, after former City Manager Alan Bergren was asked to resign.

The CMEEC Kentucky Derby trips became public in fall of 2016, thrusting Bilda, CMEEC, NPU and Mayor Hinchey — who attended the 2016 trip as Bilda’s guest — into the critical spotlight.

Other controversies also surfaced. Bilda led an internal NPU investigation in 2016 that resulted in payment of a $35,000 settlement with NPU funds to an NPU employee in a sexual harassment complaint filed against Sullivan, then Norwich utilities commission chairman.

City ethics violations were found against Bilda, Hinchey, Division Manager Steve Sinko and utilities board Chairwoman Dee Boisclair and Vice Chairman Robert Groner, all of whom attended the 2016 Kentucky Derby trip. Hinchey paid the city the $1,932.50 recommended by the Ethics Commission.

Bilda publicly apologized in September 2017 and donated $15,000 — the estimated cost of the 2016 derby trip for him and his wife — to the Thames Valley Council for Community Action for fuel assistance to low-income families.

In September 2018, a month before Bilda announced his plans to retire in 2019, the AFSCME Council 4 union representing NPU supervisors filed three state labor complaints against Bilda for allegedly threatening the union president and for negotiating a new high-level supervisory position and raise for Sinko without going through the union.

Acting General Manager LaRose rescinded the raise and promotion for Sinko, and the union withdrew all three complaints.

c.bessette@theday.com

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