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Lamont team favored rich utilities as New London sought better host deal on State Pier

I learned from a review of 2020 emails, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, some interesting things related to Gov. Ned Lamont’s generous rebuilding of State Pier for the benefit of rich utilities Eversource and Ørsted.

I never knew, for instance, as the state watched with wonder while the cost of the project grew to more than a quarter of a billion dollars, with Gov. Lamont promising to cover all overruns beyond the original $93 million estimate, that the feds last year rejected grant requests from Connecticut totaling $57 million for the project.

Of course, it doesn’t surprise me that the grant award makers at the U.S. Department of Transportation were not interested in paying the substantial capital costs of two private utilities that stand to make enormous profits from the wind turbine assembly project, on the backs of electric customers.

Besides, why should the feds approve such a lavish subsidy when Connecticut’s governor had already signed up to deliver the big gift? No wonder the governor’s team never talked about the grant requests and denials.

Much more interesting in the emails about the State Pier project were discussions about the stalemate over the utilities’ refusal throughout 2020 to make a final host deal with New London, to compensate the city for the lack of taxes it would receive for the substantial investment made for a private commercial enterprise at the pier.

It turns out Gov. Lamont’s team, in particular Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner David Lehman, was more sympathetic with the utilities’ refusal to pay New London more money than with the city’s pleas that it deserved more.

The emails also reveal that it was U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, whose staff kept badgering the Lamont team, who pushed hard for New London to be properly compensated. The Lamont team appears to take the utilities’ side in the emails.

“Had another call with (New London Mayor Michael Passero) last night — he requested a meeting next week,” commissioner Lehman wrote in an email Sept. 4, not long after he had met with Ørsted officials to discuss the host deal with New London. “I told (the mayor) he is supposed to play the Long Game here on WIND and the current deal is very good for the City vs. the alternative of no deal.”

Wow. Take it or leave it mayor, and be happy with what the utilities offer you. I guess that’s the Lamont doctrine.

And this coddling of the rich utilities in favor of the people of New London came from a former partner of Goldman Sachs, someone who played a significant role in the mortgage securities meltdown that began the Great Recession, before Lamont put him in a commissioner’s suit.

I’d like to play a Lehman Long Game here and hope that Connecticut can find a new governor, one whose team cares more about taxpayers than shareholders.

After all, it was Lamont who in the first place signed the blank-check deal to rebuild the pier for the utilities, leaving Mayor Passero on his own to negotiate a host agreement, with no leverage, since the governor had already given away the store and let them off the hook.

The emails end in September, at the time the FOI request was made, and they don’t explain how a host deal that satisfied Mayor Passero was finally made, in February of this year.

But it is clear from the emails from last summer and early fall that it was the congressman who kept pushing for New London to be fairly compensated, as the Lamont team stalled.

“Since this has been a source of some contention with the city, the congressman was wondering why this just can’t get wrapped up soon,” Courtney’s chief of staff wrote to state officials July 29.

By September, he had become more forceful.

“The congressman hopes to see the best possible outcome for the city,” he wrote Sept. 9, five days after commissioner Lehman was pushing his Long Game and take-or-leave-it ultimatum to the mayor.

“The congressman has conveyed his increasing urgency on seeing some kind of movement,” Courtney’s chief of staff wrote Sept. 24, at the end of my trail of emails from the FOI request.

The email request was to the governor’s office, and the response, made just over a week ago, almost nine months later, included some 300 emails but omitted another 29, almost 10 percent.

I am continuing a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission for a review of those emails and a decision about whether there is legal justification to continue to withhold them in their entirety, not even in some redacted form that would reveal their context.

Given what I’ve seen, I am curious about what the governor’s team really doesn’t want the public to know.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com 

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