Norwich Ethics Commission rules all five Kentucky Derby trip participants violated ethics rules

Norwich — The city Ethics Commission ruled Monday that all five city officials, including Mayor Deberey Hinchey, who participated in a controversial trip to the Kentucky Derby hosted by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative violated the city's ethics code.

The commission also recommended that strong action be taken, including that the five should reimburse the city for all or a portion of their trip costs, as the money could have come back to the city as revenue from the cooperative.

The commission's ruling comes after it held a two-hour public hearing on Jan. 19 on the complaints — two against Hinchey and one each against Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda, NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko, Utilities Commission Chairwoman Dee Boisclair and Vice Chairman Robert Groner. The trip was listed as a CMEEC board “strategic retreat” but included dozens of cooperative board members, staff, family, municipal officials and guests. The 2016 trip cost the cooperative $342,330.

The complaints alleged that the five city officials violated the provision in the city Code of Ethics that prohibit gifts of $50 or more and conflicts of interest provisions.

The Ethics Commission unleashed its strongest criticism Monday on Bilda. The commission said the other trip participants looked to Bilda as the one responsible for knowing whether the so-called strategic retreats would violate the city's ethics code.

Ethics Commission member Robert Ballard suggested that the commission recommend that Bilda be removed from his position. Others, however, disagreed and said Bilda has been a “valuable asset to the city of Norwich” as head of NPU and as acting city manager for a year from 2015 to 2016.

Instead, the commission recommended a letter of reprimand be placed in Bilda's file and that he be placed on “a short leash” for all business trips he takes on behalf of NPU for the next two years. They suggested that all trips taken by Bilda must be presented to and approved by the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners ahead of time and that he report back to the board after each trip on the business conducted.

If Bilda is found in violation of the travel restriction, the commission recommended he be terminated from his position.

While the commission suggested three Kentucky Derby trip participants should reimburse the city 25 percent of their trip costs, they asked that Bilda pay “the full freight” for himself and his wife in reimbursement to the city, a total of $15,560 for the 2016 trip.

“They need to be held more fiscally accountable with our money,” Ethics Commission member Gregory Schlough said.

The Ethics Commission's rulings will become recommendations to the City Council, and in some cases to the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners, which have enforcement authority in some of the recommended actions.

Schlough said he found the all-expense-paid, lavish trips that included no CMEEC business to be “very disturbing” and said money CMEEC spent on the trip partially belonged to residents of Norwich.

Ballard put the responsibility for all five city officials' involvement in the trip on Bilda. Ballard said Bilda invited the mayor and told her that the trip had been cleared of ethics concerns by NPU and CMEEC attorneys.

“He kind of led the group for Norwich down the rosy path,” Ballard said, “and that there were no ethics violations to be considered.”

But the commission said Sinko, along with Bilda, also bore a higher level of responsibility than the others and should pay full restitution for the trip for himself and his wife, and also be placed on restricted travel for the next two years, asking that his business trips be pre-approved by the utilities commission.

“The four NPU officials will review the Commission's findings and recommendations very closely in consultation with their legal counsel. We have no further comment at this time,” NPU spokesman Chris Riley said in a written statement following Monday's meeting.

None of the complaint respondents attended Monday's Ethics Commission meeting. Attorney Paul McCary, who represented the four NPU officials, declined to comment following the meeting.

The commission voted 5-1 that Mayor Hinchey violated the ethics code by accepting a gift valued at more than the $50 limit without asking the ethics commission for an opinion ahead of time. Schlough voted against the finding. He said he agreed she violated the ethics code, but said the commission should take into consideration that the mayor was invited at the last minute by Bilda and might not have had time to consult with the commission.

The commission ruled that Hinchey reimburse the city 25 percent of her trip costs, minus the $50 gift limit allowed, and also asked that a letter of reprimand be placed in Hinchey's personnel file with the city — assuming she has a personnel file as a paid city official.

After the meeting, Hinchey declined to comment on the specific ruling in her case but said she made her statements during the hearing.

“The rest was up to the Ethics Commission,”  she said.

Hinchey also thanked the commission for “their hard work” in deliberating the ethics complaints.

In the complaints against Boisclair and Groner, the commission recommended that they be asked to reimburse the city for 25 percent of the estimated $15,570 — minus the allowed $50 in gift value to city officials — the total value of the trip for themselves and their spouses.

The Ethics Commission also will recommend that the city utilities board not reappoint Boisclair as chairman and Groner as vice chairman when officer elections come up in March. The Ethics Commission also said the two should not be reappointed as the Norwich commission's representatives to the CMEEC board of directors.

The Ethics Commission also asked that letters of reprimand be placed in whatever files the city maintains on appointed commission and board members.

Commission member Kathryn Lord asked that a note be placed in the Ethics Commission's final report to the City Council stating an objection that attorney McCary is being paid by CMEEC to represent the four NPU officials in the ethics complaint. None of the complaints included that information, but Lord said the Code of Ethics specifically states that complaint respondents must pay for their own attorneys.

The commission noted that Mayor Hinchey paid for her attorney.

c.bessette@theday.com

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