Big Tobacco foe is Malloy’s choice for Consumer Protection

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy tapped a member of the legal team that helped bring Connecticut a multi-billion settlement against the tobacco industry one decade ago to become the new head of the Department of Consumer Protection.

Malloy, who announced his selection of Hartford attorney William M. Rubenstein, 59, Monday morning in the Legislative Office Building, charged his new commissioner with keeping a close watch on the “charlatans” that are bilking consumers on ever-growing Internet markets.

“The Department of Consumer  Protection has a broad mandate – spanning a range of marketplace regulation – from keeping the public safe from nefarious business practices and ensuring that professional licensure standards are maintained,” Malloy said. “Bill’s exhaustive experience in public service … leave me with no doubt that we have a commissioner who will be a diligent and thoughtful protector of, and advocate for, Connecticut residents.

Rubenstein, who will serve on an interim basis while his nomination is considered by the General Assembly, pledged that those who perpetrate fraud on consumers “deserve no quarter, and get no quarter on our watch.”

Though fraud isn’t limited to the Web, Rubenstein said the relative distance between merchant and consumer, and–in some instances–the speed with which transactions occur, make it easier for consumers to be mistreated.

For example, customers who used to be handed a paper contract or other type of formal agreement that they read carefully in front of a clerk or salesman now make purchases online through sites that allow them to swiftly “click through all of the ‘yes’ boxes,” without actually reading terms of sale.

But while the new commissioner said he wants to use department rules, consumer information, and new regulations and laws developed in cooperation with the legislature to better protect Internet customers, he also wants to department that fosters online commerce.

“I think we’re a far ways away from when most retailing was done by brick and mortar,” he said, adding that the efficiency of online purchasing does offer benefits to consumers.

As commissioner, Rubenstein will lead an agency with an $11 million annual budget and nearly 130 employees. His annual salary is $127,500, according to the governor’s office.

Rubenstein served in the Antitrust and Consumer Protection units within the Attorney General’s Office from 1986 through 1997. As an assistant attorney general in 1996, Rubenstein served on the legal team that represented Connecticut in a landmark lawsuit against five major tobacco companies, largely in response to marketing efforts aimed at teen smokers.

Connecticut was one of 46 states that participated in that case, which led to a 1998 settlement that awarded $246 billion settlement to the states, and dramatic new restrictions on how tobacco companies could market their products.

Connecticut was guaranteed between $3.6 billion and $5 billion of that settlement over 25 years. Since payments began in 2000, the state has received nearly $1.3 billion.

Prior to his service in the attorney general’s office, Rubenstein was counsel for the Federal Trade Commission. Most recently he has led the antitrust division at Axinn, Veltrop & Harkrider in Hartford, where he is a partner, and also has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

Rubenstein and his wife, Judith Eisenberg, live in West Hartford.