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Bilda placed on ‘indefinite paid leave’ in wake of federal indictment

November 16, 2018

Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda was placed on “indefinite paid leave,” effective immediately Thursday, following a 2½-hour closed-door executive session to discuss the federal indictments that charged him and four other officials from the utility cooperative that hosted controversial lavish trips.

Bilda, 54, was one of five Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative officials indicted on federal public corruption charges last week in connection with lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby and The Greenbrier golf resort in West Virginia. CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin and cooperative Chief Financial Officer Edward Pryor were placed on unpaid leave by the CMEEC board a week ago. Former CMEEC board members James Sullivan of Norwich and Edward DeMuzzio of Groton also were indicted. The five face charges of conspiracy and three counts of theft from a program receiving federal funds for attending the lavish events and receiving luxury gifts and for allegedly conspiring to keep the trips and gifts secret, without CMEEC board approval or the knowledge of the member municipal utilities.

“The federal indictments that were made public last week are of great concern to the Board of Commissioners, to NPU as an organization, and to the public that we all serve,” commission Chairwoman Grace Jones said in a prepared statement just prior to the vote to place Bilda on leave. “My fellow commissioners and I have concluded our executive session to review and discuss the information that is available. We have evaluated our options and made a determination as to what is the best course of action for NPU.”

Neither Bilda nor an attorney representing him attended Thursday’s special meeting.

The commission appointed 21-year NPU veteran and 10-year Assistant General Manager Chris LaRose as acting general manager. LaRose’s salary and terms of the appointment had not been determined as of Thursday evening, NPU spokesman Chris Riley said.

LaRose said after the vote that he is familiar with the work and has filled in during Bilda’s absences in the past but said there will be “new challenges” associated with the new position.

“I’m looking forward to the opportunity to lead Norwich Public Utilities,” LaRose said.

Four board members attended in person: Chairwoman Grace Jones, Vice Chairman Stewart Peil, members Michael Goldblatt and Robert Staley, and member Steve Becker attended by telephone. Board members made no comments during the brief open session that followed the closed-door meeting, and Jones read the public statement.

The CMEEC board held emergency meetings last Thursday and Friday and voted unanimously to place Rankin and Pryor on unpaid leave immediately while the agency conducted an internal investigation into the charges in the lengthy indictments.

Three weeks prior to the indictments, Bilda, 54, had announced plans to retire sometime in 2019 after 30 years with NPU. Under the city’s current retirement plan, employees are allowed full retirement with 25 or more years of service, beginning at age 55. Early retirement at age 54 could be done with a 91 percent pension, according to a Summary of Benefits handbook for the city retirement fund.

Aldermen Samuel Browning and Stacy Gould attended Thursday’s meeting and waited out the executive session. The two offered mixed reactions following the vote.

Gould said the commission made the “appropriate decision” and said LaRose would provide “much-needed stability” to the organization. She said the next focus would be to restore the public’s trust in NPU.

“The act of one individual should not taint the rest of Norwich Public Utilities,” Gould said. “The Norwich Public Utilities team continues to work diligently each and every day.”

Browning, however, was not satisfied with the action taken by the commission, saying the “indefinite paid leave” could last for months or even more than a year as the criminal proceedings go forward. Browning also questioned whether Bilda’s retirement announcement still would be valid.

A state statute titled “Pension Revocation or Reduction for Public Officials and State Municipal Employees” allows the state attorney general to seek pension revocation or reduction of public pensions of state or municipal employees if they are convicted of “crimes related to state or municipal office.”

The statute states that if any state or municipal employee is “convicted of or pleads guilty or nolo contendere to any crime” related to the office in state or federal court, the state attorney general “shall apply to the Superior Court for an order to revoke or reduce the pension of any kind” that the public official otherwise would receive.

The statute describes factors to be considered in determining whether to seek revocation or reduction of a pension, including the severity of the crime and the degree of public trust placed in the public official.

Bilda’s contract with the NPU board includes a provision for termination for cause, defined as “dishonesty, conviction of a felony, illegal conduct, gross negligence or material misconduct or the habitual neglect of duties,” following an arbitration process.

c.bessette@theday.com

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