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Former Norwich Public Utilities GM John Bilda: surprised, confused at criminal charges

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New Haven — Former Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda testified in federal court Friday that he was surprised and confused that his participation in lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and a golf resort would result in criminal charges.

Bilda, one of five defendants facing federal criminal charges in connection with the trips, spent his second day on the witness stand Friday testifying on numerous details of the Kentucky Derby trips and two 2015 trips to The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia hosted by the Connecticut Electric Energy Cooperative.

Bilda emphatically said the CMEEC board of directors had approved the Kentucky Derby trips through “the macro” budget process, although the trips never were listed in the budget or discussed in budget deliberations.

He said he did specifically mention the Kentucky Derby trip at one CMEEC board meeting, but it was not recorded in the minutes of that meeting.

Under cross-examination Friday by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael S. McGarry, Bilda was asked about numerous aspects of the Kentucky Derby and The Greenbrier trips, as well as his parents’ attendance at the 2015 trip and his wife’s separate business dealings with CMEEC.

Bilda said the growing participation by dozens of board members, top CMEEC staff, guests, vendors and business associates over the years showed the success of the retreats to CMEEC. The trip grew from 24 participants in 2013 to more than 30 in 2014 and 2015, to 44 participants in 2016.

“In all honesty, I don’t understand these charges, and my attorneys have explained it to me more than once,” a frustrated Bilda said at one point during testimony Friday. He added that he did not understand why he and four other defendants were on trial and not the others who attended.

In the case, former CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin, former CFO Edward Pryor, Bilda and former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton face felony charges of conspiracy and theft from a program that receives federal funds for their roles in planning and attending the trips.

The annual trips CMEEC arranged for dozens of top staff, board members, some family members, local political leaders, vendors and others took place from 2013 to 2016 and collectively cost over $1 million.

Initially, Rankin, Bilda, DeMuzzio and Pryor faced four theft charges, while Sullivan faces three charges, as he resigned from his CMEEC and Norwich utility commission positions prior to the 2016 Kentucky Derby trip.

Earlier this week, federal prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the theft charges associated with the 2016 Kentucky Derby trip and the deposits made that year for a 2017 trip canceled after public outrage over the trips, while retaining the conspiracy charge for 2016.

CMEEC is owned by its member municipal utilities: Norwich Public Utilities, Groton Utilities, Bozrah Light & Power, Jewett City Department of Public Utilities, South Norwalk Electric and Water and Norwalk Third Taxing District. In the case, the government claims defendants allegedly used money derived from CMEEC revenues intended to be returned to the member municipal utilities as rate stabilization funds.

Attorney McGarry questioned Bilda on the total $1 million cost of the trips. Bilda responded that CMEEC over that same period had earned well over $175 million for its members. Bilda also said had the $1 million not been spent on the trips, it would have gone into CMEEC’s rate stabilization fund, not directly to the member utilities.

Judge Jeffrey A. Meyer instructed attorneys and the jury that the 2017 ethics violations hearings in Norwich and Groton are not part of the criminal case, but McGarry was allowed to ask Bilda about the city’s ethics code and parts of his testimony during the 2017 Norwich Ethics Commission hearing.

Bilda said he had never read the city’s ethics code regarding a prohibition on gifts and conflict of interest provisions prior to 2017. McGarry presented four records showing CMEEC had paid his wife, Debra Bilda’s company, BMTees, a screen-printing business in Norwich, a combined total of $20,828 for shirts, hats, bags and even custom-printed golf balls with the faces of CMEEC board members — including John Bilda — on them.

Bilda testified that his wife’s business was totally separate, and he was not involved, except for being part owner of the building where it was housed.

McGarry pointed out that at different times, Bilda had asserted the “value” the retreats brought to CMEEC changed from $125 million to $175 million. Bilda asserted that the point he was making was that the trips had “tremendous” value in getting the CMEEC board and others to work better together. He later said the amount of savings to CMEEC grew over time.

In August 2015, Bilda, Sullivan, Rankin and DeMuzzio attended a “scouting” trip together to The Greenbrier to check out the facility and amenities for a possible retreat by the full board and others in October 2015. The trip was billed as a board compensation committee expense, although not all members of the committee were invited.

Bilda said during the August 2015 trip, the four engaged in detailed discussions for a presentation to be given at the October retreat on a major new operations system for CMEEC, along with playing golf and touring the resort.

McGarry asked about retreats and social outings CMEEC also held in Connecticut, at the Norwich Inn & Spa and local country clubs. McGarry used the local CMEEC outings as examples of local events that could have been used for board bonding and to celebrate CMEEC's financial successes.

“It didn’t cost over $1 million to play golf in Connecticut, did it?” McGarry asked.

“No, it didn’t,” Bilda responded.

The defense rested Friday, and closing arguments by both sides are expected to take place next week.

c.bessette@theday.com

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