Scandalizing the Estys: There’s not much in it

Scandal mongers are feeding heavily off Connecticut’s power couple, U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, and her husband, the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Daniel C. Esty. But the supposed offenses of the Estys are actually only the norms of political life that could be held against most officeholders.

Prior to his appointment by Governor Malloy, Daniel Esty was a professor of environmental law and policy at Yale, a prolific author and a business consultant. Connecticut’s largest electric utility, Northeast Utilities, had been among his clients, though not for five years. Soon after his appointment Esty said he would recuse himself from regulatory issues dealing specifically with two dozen former clients, including NU.

This was more a matter of politics than good governance, since Esty no longer had those clients and most government appointees are qualified by their experience. To turn experience into conflict of interest would diminish government’s competence. Of course there are different kinds of experience just as there are business stooges and labor stooges. But what the governor found interesting about Esty was his work nudging business toward environmental concerns.

Now the environmentalists are mad at Esty for supporting greater access for Connecticut to Canadian hydroelectric power. They complain that classifying hydro power as renewable power will undermine development of in-state sources of such power — that is, with more access to cheap and renewable hydro power from Canada, there may be less reason to tax Connecticut electricity users surreptitiously through higher rates to subsidize expensive and politically correct forms of renewable power here. But Connecticut’s energy costs are so high that priority must be given to bringing them down.

Meanwhile heating oil dealers are mad at Esty for advancing Governor Malloy’s plan to increase Connecticut’s access to natural gas, more power that is cheap and less harmful to the environment.

The Malloy administration’s idea is to increase energy choices and competition and let markets, not government, do more to pick the winners — not always the approach in a people’s republic.

Esty is spreading this gospel far and wide. He did it the other day in a conference call with UBS Securities, which wants to know if Connecticut companies are worth investing in, particularly in light of the biggest complaint about business conditions here, which isn’t taxes but energy costs. State government might want Connecticut companies to be considered worth investing in.

In the conference call Esty talked about the Malloy administration’s pending energy legislation, which includes hydro power access, so he was accused of playing favorites because his former client NU is working with Hydro-Quebec to bring its power south. But Canada is simply where the hydro power is, and Esty has stressed that Connecticut could buy it from whoever could sell it.

The commissioner apologized for the supposedly bad appearances arising from the timing of the conference call, but no confidential information was conveyed in it. Indeed, a few days earlier Esty had given a similar briefing to the Journal Inquirer, again stressing natural gas, hydro power, greater consumer choice and more competitive energy markets, and the newspaper reported his comments the next day without generating scandal.

The clamor against Representative Esty, raised by Republicans, is that she has taken campaign contributions from officials of companies regulated by her husband’s department — that a shakedown may be going on. To reduce the clamor, the other day Representative Esty returned $3,500 in contributions from NU sources. But those sources hardly need to curry her husband’s favor indirectly through her campaign any more than they need to curry her own favor directly, for Congress acts on energy and utility policy too.

And of course Republicans also take contributions from energy and utility interests — and rare is the Republican who supports public financing of campaigns to replace financing by special interests.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.