OP-ED | CT’s Power Couple: The Commissioner And The Congresswoman
“Two for the price of one” was the mantra of candidate Bill Clinton on the presidential campaign trail some 20 years ago. But as Clinton later discovered, the partnership with his brainy lawyer wife Hillary turned into a liability when the Whitewater scandal threatened to drag down his presidency.
Thankfully, Connecticut’s own premier power couple, Daniel and Elizabeth Esty, aren’t the target of a criminal investigation, but the ubiquitous pair has always made some observers uncomfortable. The latest revelations that Mr. Esty, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, conducted a special conference call with energy investors in advance of a Capitol vote on renewable energy, has caused spasms of outrage among environmentalists. UBS Securities, the investment firm whose 150 clients Mr. Esty chatted with, has a substantial interest in the energy giant Northeast Utilities, which in turn is regulated by Mr. Esty’s department.
Mr. Esty’s klutziness set off a chain reaction that would make your head spin. A planned vote on the renewable energy bill in the Senate was postponed, Mr. Esty apologized for being “insensitive” to the legislative process, offended environmentalists filed wide-ranging FOI requests for his communications, the state Republican Party chairman called for the attorney general to investigate and Gov. Dannel Malloy stood by his man—all within the span of seven days.
A couple of years ago, Mr. Esty had aroused deep suspicions on the part of greenies when he failed to disclose that from 1997 to 2005 he had accepted $205,000 as a consultant for CL&P’s parent company, Northeast Utilities. Even after that mini-scandal erupted, Mr. Esty again failed to disclose another source of income: $7,500 in speaking fees from United Illuminating—yet another energy giant his department was supposed to regulate. Laughably, he asserted that speaking engagements are different than consulting and so do not constitute the same level of conflict.
There’s nothing wrong with having conflicts of interest, so long as you take appropriate action. And in many cases, Mr. Esty did. In his work as a consultant who helps businesses become better environmental citizens, the former Yale professor did so much work in the private sector that he had to recuse himself in advance from having anything to do with 26 organizations that might have matters before DEEP. Yet he continued to have blind spots. Things got so bad that I started a recurring feature on my old blog entitled “The Esty Death Watch.”
Meanwhile, the equally estimable Mrs. Esty, having lost her seat in the state House of Representatives after only one term, immediately set her eyes on the 5th congressional district when it became clear that incumbent Chris Murphy would make a run for the open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Joe Lieberman. The moderate Democrat turned out to be a good fit, eventually edging out the equally moderate Republican state Sen. Andrew Roraback to keep the seat in Democratic hands.
But that little Esty problem happened again. Turns out Mrs. Esty had accepted $3,500 in campaign contributions from Northeast Utilities executives and lobbyists. Whoops. During the 2012 campaign, she had refused to return the money, offering a flip response to WNPR’s John Dankosky: “I’m not my husband. I make my own decisions. I always have. Welcome to the 21st century.”
After Mr. Esty’s latest faux pas, the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a scathing statement demanding Mrs. Esty give back the NU money once and for all. This time, citing a need to end “an unnecessary distraction,” she decided to return the money. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move right along.
The power couple’s tin-eared pratfalls have given ammunition to critical lefty commentators such as Jonathan Pelto and Alfonso Robinson; the latter had already branded Mrs. Esty “Republican Lite.” And the Estys’ belated acknowledgement of the resulting “distractions” are typical in Hartford and Washington, where public officials often expect taxpayers to cut them some ethical slack because they’re accepting less money working for the government than they could be making in the private sector.
Either that, or they implicitly say, “Trust me folks. You know me. I wouldn’t do anything wrong.” But reasonable people know that no one — not even the Commissioner and the Congresswoman — is eager to bite the hand that feeds. And it gets even harder to snap at that hand when the fodder has a greenish hue.