Norwich ethics hearing turns heated, Bilda walks out

Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda stormed out of Monday's contentious ethics public hearing after an hour of questioning and debating between commission members and two NPU officials under investigation for possible city ethics violations for participating in an October 2015 strategic retreat to a West Virginia golf resort.

Bilda, NPU Division Manager Steve Sinko — who wrote a letter to the commission declining to participate in Monday's public hearing — and utilities commission member Robert Groner participated in the three-day strategic retreat to The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia hosted by the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative. The same cooperative, owned by six member municipal utilities including NPU, hosted controversial lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for the past four years.

Monday's public hearing officially involved only the October 2015 Greenbrier trip, but questions and answers between the commission and Bilda and Groner intertwined the two events and at times led to heated exchanges.

Participants in the Greenbrier trip took a chartered jet out of Groton-New London Airport to West Virginia for the all-expenses paid three-day trip that did include two half-day business workshops. Expense sheets provided by CMEEC show the trip cost more than $105,000.

Ethics Commission member Robert Ballard announced that he was finished with questions and wanted to make a comment, when Bilda challenged Ballard that unless he had a question pertaining to the ethics complaint, Bilda was done with the hearing. He rose, picked up his papers and left the room. Just prior to his departure, Bilda and Ballard debated over whether public perception played a role in municipal ethics cases.

Bilda disagreed and said the city charter and the facts in the case should dictate whether an ethics violation had occurred, and he believed no ethics violation had happened. Bilda adamantly objected when one commission member referred to the CMEEC-hosted lavish retreats as “a scandal.” Bilda said he met with members of the City Council and other city officials just after both the Kentucky Derby and Greenbrier trips, and he said there was no effort to conceal the activities.

Bilda, Sinko and Groner attended the three-day CMEEC board retreat to the posh Greenbrier resort in October 2015. Unlike the Kentucky Derby trips, the Greenbrier retreat did include two half-day work sessions, with all meals provided at the resort hotel. Groner submitted to the Ethics Commission a 26-page PowerPoint presentation titled “CMEEC Performance Information Forum.”

The sessions ran from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., after which trip participants — including their spouses — had free time to play golf or do skeet shooting. Bilda and his wife did both, while Groner said he did skeet shooting while his wife toured the resort — which included a Cold War-era underground bomb shelter for Congress.

But Ethics Commission member Kathryn Lord repeatedly referred to specific information in the PowerPoint presentation that at one point stressed accountability by CMEEC board members to “actions,” “behavior” and “results.” Another point urged the members to “pursue excellence” with bullet points stating “Do what is right,” “Make your best effort” and “Create a positive solution.”

Lord questioned both Groner and Bilda on how the participants applied those directives when, seven months later, they participated in a CMEEC-funded retreat to the Kentucky Derby that CMEEC reported cost $342,330 for 44 participants. That retreat included no business meetings, workshops or presentations.

Groner responded that the Greenbrier trip was his first CMEEC retreat, having just joined the CMEEC board that month. He said he believed the Kentucky Derby trip would be similar, with board business combined with free time and entertainment activities.

“I was in my freshman year of college,” Groner said. “First class.”

He added that, as a newcomer to the cooperative, he was in no position to question the itinerary or spending practices of the retreats and admitted he found it lavish and did not plan to go on future Kentucky Derby trips.

“I had no idea it was going to be as lavish as it was,” Groner said of the 2016 Kentucky Derby trip.

In response to the vocal public criticism of the trips, CMEEC has enacted rules to prevent future lavish retreats.

Prior to the hearing, Groner sent an email to Ethics Commission Chairwoman Carol Menard that included the 26-page Greenbrier retreat PowerPoint and a criticism that the Ethics Commission's research “apparently wasn't very thorough” since the commission did not obtain the presentation independently from CMEEC.

Lord countered that the commission had tried unsuccessfully to obtain detailed information about the Greenbrier trip from CMEEC prior to the hearing.

“The Ethics Commission and both newspapers have been trying desperately to get information out of CMEEC,” Lord said. “It's not that easy.”

Groner, too, said he was asked about the Kentucky Derby trip shortly after returning by Norwich “political people” — some of whom now deny having discussed it, he said.

Bilda told the Ethics Commission there was value to the CMEEC board and the cooperative's operations. Bilda said that improved board working relations over the past four years has led to $128 million in added value to CMEEC through risk-taking and business deals that brought outside revenue into the region, translating to stronger utility operations and lower rates.

Bilda bristled when Lord asked if he followed the core values taught during the Greenbrier retreat and said his record of running NPU “speaks for itself” in the quality of services the utility has provided over the past 30 years.

“I think CMEEC provides a tremendous amount of value to the six communities,” Bilda said.

He also defended his long record of volunteer service in the Norwich community on numerous boards — some of which also take retreats outside the area.

“This is not a scandal,” Bilda said.

“You don't have to get angry with me,” Lord responded.

“I'm not angry at all,” Bilda said.

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the name of the West Virginia resort where the retreat took place. It is The Greenbrier.

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