Former utilities chairman won't comment on CMEEC issues, cites FBI investigation

Norwich — The longtime former chairman of both the Norwich utilities commission and the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative board of directors would not comment Monday on several issues related to the controversial Kentucky Derby trips and lobbying connections that could raise conflict of interest questions regarding his tenure on the two agencies.

James M. Sullivan, chairman of the Norwich Board of Public Utilities Commissioners from January 2008 through October 2015, and chairman of the CMEEC board from December 2013 through October 2015, said his attorney has advised him to decline to comment on issues relating to his service.

Sullivan cited an ongoing FBI investigation into CMEEC and its member utilities, launched in October, for his silence, but said he has not been contacted by any federal or local authorities in connection with the Kentucky Derby trips or any CMEEC issues.

“Until such time as that inquiry has come to a conclusion,” Sullivan said, “I will respectfully have no comment concerning this, with respect to my time as a board member of NPU and as a board member of CMEEC.”

Sullivan attended the Derby trip at least in 2015 along with his wife, Linda Sanchez, a sitting Democratic congresswoman representing the 38th U.S. House District in California.

“Congresswoman Sánchez attended the event in her personal capacity as the spouse of a board member, which is expressly allowed under House rules,” a spokesman for Sanchez's Washington office said in a statement. “Although she was not required to do so, out of an abundance of caution she did seek the advice of the House Ethics Committee prior to attending, and the Committee confirmed that she could attend.”

In Norwich, the lavish trips, which were funded by CMEEC as so-called “strategic board retreats” have been the subject of six ethics complaints against current utilities commission Chairman Dee Boisclair, Vice Chairman Robert Groner, NPU General Manager John Bilda and NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko. Two complaints have been filed against Mayor Deberey Hinchey for her participation in the 2016 trip.

Sullivan also declined to answer questions about his lobbyist connections with two organizations that currently do business with CMEEC and the city of Norwich, saying only that his lobbying business is a “matter of public record.”

Sullivan is principal of JMS Consulting, a federally registered lobbying firm. According to lobbying public disclosure records, from 2009 through 2016, JMS Consulting was paid a total of $867,500 in lobbying fees by the Metropolitan District Commission in the greater Hartford area.

In September 2015, one month before Sullivan resigned from both his CMEEC board position and from the Norwich Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, the CMEEC board voted to approve the MDC as a “new customer” of CMEEC to manage electricity sales at the Hartford area agency's hydropower generating plants. Sullivan did not attend the September meeting when the vote was taken, and he resigned his positions prior to the October meetings.

Attorney R. Bartley Halloran, who has represented MDC for several years and now also represents Sullivan in relation to CMEEC issues, said Sullivan's lobbying business had nothing to do with CMEEC's contract with MDC, and also had nothing to do with Sullivan's resignation from the two boards.

At the time, Sullivan said he was resigning for personal reasons and time constraints between his business, which has him commuting to Washington, D.C. frequently, and his public service in Norwich.

Halloran said MDC was told two years earlier by Eversource that the private utility no longer would purchase the electricity from the hydro plants. MDC sought a new buyer and contacted CMEEC. According to the CMEEC meeting minutes: “CMEEC staff have had a series of meetings with the MDC to explore the possibility of CMEEC providing certain services to MDC.”

Halloran said he did not believe Sullivan was even aware of the meetings or the pending contract between CMEEC and MDC.

But Sullivan did vote twice on a contract between CMEEC and the solar power partnership of SolarCity and Brightfields Development LLC. From 2013 through 2016, Sullivan's JMS Consulting received payments totaling $90,000 from Brightfields.

The SolarCity-Brightfields partnership is developing several large solar power arrays throughout southeastern Connecticut for CMEEC, including projects in Norwich, Groton and Bozrah. Sullivan voted twice on the CMEEC board to approve solar projects with the partnership, on July 24, 2014 to approve a Community Solar Garden Project and on March 26, 2015 to approve a Solar Garden Coupled Storage Project.

Halloran said he could not comment on Sullivan's CMEEC board votes regarding the solar projects.

The Norwich Board of Public Utilities Commission did not vote on the SolarCity-Brightfields projects in Norwich, but the Norwich City Council unanimously approved a resolution on April 20, 2015, for the SolarCity project at the former Rogers Road Landfill and a city-owned parcel across the street.

NPU General Manager John Bilda, vice chairman of the CMEEC board of directors, then also serving as acting city manager, signed the contract on April 29, 2015.

c.bessette@theday.com

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