Attorney general to consider trying to revoke Bilda’s pension
Norwich ― The state Attorney General’s office will determine whether to seek to revoke the pension of former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda following his upcoming sentencing on a federal theft charge in connection with lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a West Virginia golf resort in 2015.
Bilda was one of three former Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials found guilty in December 2021 of one count each of theft from a program receiving federal funding for their roles in planning and participating in the trips. He is scheduled to be sentenced April 20.
Bilda was awarded an annual pension of $147,297 by the Norwich Personnel and Pension Board following a separation agreement with NPU after he was indicted in the case.
Bilda, a CMEEC board member, former CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin and former CMEEC and Norwich utilities commission chairman James Sullivan were convicted Dec. 9, 2021 of the one theft count and were acquitted of other theft counts stemming from the 2014 Kentucky Derby trip and one count of conspiracy.
Two other CMEEC officials, former CFO Edward Pryor and former Groton Utilities commissioner Edward DeMuzzio were acquitted on all charges.
CMEEC had hosted lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby from 2013 through 2016, with the guest lists and costs growing each year and including dozens of CMEEC officials, family members, municipal and utility officials, contract vendors and guests.
CMEEC paid for the trips using its Margin Fund, which held revenues from CMEEC’s electric sales and services provided to non-member customers.
All money in the Margin Fund was to be turned back to the CMEEC member municipal electric utilities, including Norwich Public Utilities, Groton Utilities and Jewett City Public Utilities, as rate stabilization funds. CMEEC labeled the trip expenses, which collectively totaled $1.2 million, as “board expenses.” The 2015 trips cost $536,000, according to a CMEEC internal investigation.
CMEEC was created by the state legislature in the 1970s as a way for local municipal electric utilities to have greater buying power when purchasing wholesale electricity and transmission for member customers.
As Bilda’s sentencing approaches on April 20 in U.S. District Court in New Haven, state statute 1-110, Pension Revocation or Reduction for Public and State or Municipal Employees could come into play.
The 2008 statute states that if any public official or state or municipal employee is convicted of or pleads guilty or no contest to any crime related to state or municipal office in state criminal or federal criminal court, the Attorney General shall apply to the Superior Court for an order to revoke or reduce the pension to which the involved official or employee is otherwise entitled.
Bilda’s attorney says he’s entitled to pension
Norwich resident Scott Harrington, who has closely watched the CMEEC case over the years, has sent multiple letters to Attorney General William Tong, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom, the City Council and Gov. Ned Lamont asking why no action has been taken yet to seek to revoke Bilda’s pension.
“In criminal law, a defendant is ‘convicted’ after they are sentenced,” Deputy Associate Attorney General Gregory O’Connell responded to Harrington last week. “We are monitoring this case and will be in a position to determine the applicability of the pension revocation statute after sentencing occurs.”
Elizabeth Benton, spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office would not comment on any possible pre-litigation communications among parties.
Nystrom and Norwich City Manager John Salomone told The Day this week they have not been asked to provide testimony at Bilda’s upcoming sentencing.
Attorney Jacques Parenteau, who represented Bilda on his pension application to the city Personnel and Pension Board, said he will object to any effort to revoke Bilda’s pension. Parenteau argued that the state statute cannot be applied to Bilda, because the case involved his role as a CMEEC board member, not as a city employee, and that CMEEC is not among the quasi-public agencies covered by the statute.
Further, Parenteau said the money used to pay for the trips did not belong to the city of Norwich or Norwich ratepayers.
“John Bilda was convicted of one count,” Parenteau said in an email statement to The Day. “The other charges were either acquitted or dismissed. On that one count of conviction, the jury expressly decided that the money at issue belonged to CMEEC; it did not belong to Norwich. As a result, the revocation statute does not apply to Mr. Bilda’s pension, which was earned with over 30 years of hard work for NPU.”
Parenteau had sent a letter to Norwich Corporation Counsel Michael Driscoll in December 2021 following the guilty verdict making the same arguments.
State has tried to revoke 27 pensions
Since the 2008 pension revocation law took effect, the attorney general’s office has filed court action 27 times seeking revocation or reduction of convicted former public employees’ pensions. The cases have involved the convictions in both state and federal criminal court of state, municipal and regional agency employees.
Rulings have been mixed and often took into account whether the convicted former employee had been ordered to pay restitution and how much of that restitution had been paid. In some cases, judges have ordered a pension reduced by an amount to cover restitution payments.
In some cases, when restitution had been paid, or the theft involved relatively small amounts, judges have declined to revoke or reduce pensions.
In three cases, judges’ rulings are still pending following trials. In another case, a trial is about to begin.
Last week Tong announced he had filed suit in a high-profile case to seek revocation of the pension of former West Haven housing specialist John Bernardo following his guilty plea in federal court for conspiracy to commit wire fraud involving COVID-19 relief funds. Bernardo had conspired with then-state legislator Michael DiMassa, who also worked for the West Haven City Council.
Other cases have involved school superintendents, state troopers, municipal or state employees and elected officials.
Perhaps the most prominent case was former Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, who pled guilty to charges of bribery and attempted first-degree larceny in 2010. Perez’ initial conviction was overturned, and he pleaded guilty to reduced charges. A Superior Court judge ordered his pension revoked in March 2019.
The only southeastern Connecticut case to date involved Stephanie Hodge of Groton, an employee of the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority, who pleaded guilty in 2015 to first-degree larceny.
In the pension revocation case, a Superior Court judge revoked her pension on a summary judgment after she failed to appear in court for the case. The judge ruled that Hodge’s contributions to her pension be used for restitution in the larceny case.