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DEEP conflicts for Esty and his agency

Published May 01. 2013 4:00AM

The member of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's official family most plagued by that old devil, a conflict or interest or the appearance thereof, continues to be the Commissioner of Energy and Environmental Protection Dan Esty. Mr. Esty came to public service after a successful career as an academic and lucrative part-time work as a consultant and speaker on energy and environmental matters.

Since becoming commissioner, Mr. Esty has at times failed to avoid perceptions of conflict even though he has seemingly observed the letter of the ethics laws. It's taken him some time to learn that in government, technical adherence to rules isn't always enough, especially when overseeing a department with built in conflicting interests like energy and the environment.

After his appointment, Mr. Esty announced he would recuse himself from doing DEEP business with an impressive 28 companies and organizations that had provided him with consulting income.

He didn't list Northeast Utilities, which paid him more than $205,000 over a period that ended five years before he took office, five years being the time limitation chosen by Mr. Esty. But a General Assembly financial statement submitted by his wife Elizabeth revealed that her husband had received $7,500 from United Illuminating, the other major utility in the state, for a speech he gave in 2009.

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain noted that Mr. Esty got paid for a lot of speeches he gave in the years before becoming commissioner and that speech recompense was, well, different than consulting fees.

Questions were also raised in 2011 when Mr. Esty interrupted an application by NU subsidiary Connecticut Light & Power - to install new metering equipment - that was seemingly not going well for the utility.

Then, a week ago, Mr. Esty became involved with NU again when he briefed investors and securities analysts on a renewable energy bill and its benefits for the utility. This happened during a conference call arranged by UBS Securities, an investment banking firm that had upgraded NU's stock rating a few days earlier. It was all too cozy.

All of this proved embarrassing to U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District (and the commissioner's wife), who after earlier dismissing criticism of contributions she had received from NU executives during her campaign for Congress in 2012, had a change of heart.

Last week, the congresswoman returned $2,000 in NU campaign contributions along with $1,500 already contributed to her next campaign by NU executives and a company lobbyist.

The congresswoman was returning the contributions "in the interest of ending an unnecessary distraction," said a spokesman. He was certainly right about that, as the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee had already accused her of ignoring "the impropriety of accepting those contributions until the bad press became too much for her to handle."

But Rep. Esty is the minor player in this little drama of appearances. Either through innocence or arrogance, Commissioner Esty has not only disrupted his wife's activities, he's placed a heavy hand on the legislative process.

After environmentalists and good government advocates raised questions about the propriety of Mr. Esty's conference call, the state Senate postponed an April 24 debate on the renewable energy bill he had discussed.

The following day, a coalition of environmental and citizen groups sought documents apparently aimed at confirming their perception that Mr. Esty has favored energy companies while freezing environmentalists out of energy policy discussions.

Of at least equal concern is that the two interests Mr. Esty is commissioned to oversee - energy and the environment - are often in conflict themselves. It may soon be time for the legislature to revisit the wisdom of providing government efficiency by combining those two functions into one department.

Mr. Esty admits he should have been "more attentive to the fact that (renewable energy) legislation was pending," but he continues to insist he did nothing wrong by conducting the briefing - it's his job to get the word out about clean and renewable energy.

Getting the word out is fine, but on a conference call to investors? Next time, try a press release.

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