When a candidate’s spouse is powerful, the goal of a campaign donation can be … complicated

Hartford — As part of his line of attack, Republican Andrew Roraback criticizes his Democratic rival Elizabeth Esty for accepting campaign cash from companies and green groups that have business before her husband Dan Esty, commissioner of the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“She’s shaking down businesses and companies regulated by her husband’s agency,” Roraback said at a press conference in Hartford last week.

Roraback, a longtime state legislator, and Esty, who served one term in the state House, are running for the 5th Congressional District seat, now held by Chris Murphy. Murphy is running for Senate.

Many of Elizabeth Esty’s donors have links to her husband or his agency. But an analysis by the Connecticut Mirror of Esty’s fundraising shows a more complicated relationship between Dan Esty and Elizabeth Esty’s fundraising and no clear evidence of a “shakedown.”

Esty has received dozens of donations from corporations and lobbyists with business before DEEP, or who could conceivably have business before the agency in the future. She has also received dozens of contributions from environmental groups, some of whom lobby DEEP.

In addition, Esty has accepted donations from six Hartford-based law firms that have registered to lobby the energy and environment department.

Federal Election Commission records show that about 200 individual donations of the approximately 5,000 Esty has received came from environmentalists or executives of businesses affected by DEEP regulations or from lobbyists representing those businesses. Those contributions represent about 15 percent of the $1.3 million Elizabeth Esty has collected from individuals as of July 25.

On Monday, the Esty campaign announced it has raised another $560,000 since July 25. The identities of the most recent donors don’t have to be disclosed to the FEC until Oct. 15.

If they follow a previous pattern, most of Esty’s new contributors will be former colleagues, family, friends and others with no apparent link to DEEP.

Nevertheless, environmentalists and renewable energy companies are big donors to Esty’s campaign, contributing nearly $100,000. They include William Meadows, past president of the Wilderness Society, Gordon Binder, a senior fellow at the World Wildlife Fund, and several members of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But they contributed less than Emily’s List, an aggregator of donations for pro-choice women candidates and a major donor to Esty’s campaign, giving nearly $150,000 as of July 25.

Meadows, who recently retired as head of the Wilderness Society, said he has never met Dan Esty and that he was urged to donate to Elizabeth Esty’s campaign by other environmentalists.

“In this case, I had three or four people who said, ‘You need to support her,'” Meadows said. “She has some real good friends in the environmental community.”

Yet Meadows said having an influential spouse “helps opens the door” to political contributions.

Binder said he once worked with Dan Esty at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, and that his $900 contribution to Elizabeth Esty’s campaign is in part based on that connection.

“I always said it would be Dan who would be running for Congress,” Binder said.

But Binder said his donation was also aimed to help Elizabeth Esty, whom he called “pragmatic and a centrist.”

Other environmentalists who gave to Esty’s campaign have strong ties to DEEP. Margaret Miner, who represents the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut, is one.

Miner said she likes Roraback but believes, “Democrats are much more likely to protect the environment,” so she’s backing Esty.

But she said her $250 donation did not help her efforts to lobby the DEEP.

“I don’t think anyone there knows I gave to Elizabeth Esty,” Miner said.

Charge, and countercharge

Esty denies she’s raising money from anyone trying to influence her husband. She also says that Roraback has plenty of campaign contributions from special interests with business before the state Senate — a charge Roraback calls irrelevant because he has quit the state Senate to run for Congress.

But, he said, “Elizabeth Esty’s husband has enormous power to help or hurt businesses in Connecticut.”

But Roraback, who is trailing Esty badly in campaign fundraising, has not produced any evidence of influence-peddling, something that is often hard to document.

It’s true that corporations and lobbyists with clients regulated by the DEEP — or who could have issues before the agency in the future — have donated at least $115,000 to the Esty campaign.

Four executives of Northeast Utilities, for example, gave a total of $2,000. The corporation once hired Dan Esty as a consultant and, clearly, is regulated through DEEP.

There are donations from executives of other companies regulated by the DEEP as well, including the president of North Haven-based United Aluminum and renewable energy companies such as BP Wind Energy and New England Clean Energy, which do business in Connecticut.

Esty also received campaign cash from principals at six big Hartford law firms that lobby DEEP: Murtha Cullina; Capital Strategies; Robinson & Cole; Updike Kelly & Spellacy; Camilliere, Cloud & Kennedy; and Kovak & Salina.

Only one — Camilliere, Cloud & Kennedy — has registered as a federal lobbyist, able to lobby Congress, which may raise questions as to why the others would give to Elizabeth Esty.

Nan Birdwhistell, an attorney at Murtha Cullina, gave $5,450 to Esty’s campaign. As with many of the lobbyists and company executives referred to this story, Birdwhistell did not return phone calls.

Esty campaign spokesman Jeb Fain said Birdwhistell is a close friend of Elizabeth Esty.

Five other members of the Murtha Cullina law firm also contributed $2,500 to Esty.

Murtha Cullina’s Richard Marone, who gave $1,250, said his contribution had nothing to do with Dan Esty.

“I like the way (Elizabeth Esty) approaches the issues in terms of balance and compromise,” Marone said.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, or CREW, said it’s common for those seeking to influence government officials to do favors for family members. But it doesn’t mean those favors are illegal or were solicited, she said.

“That doesn’t mean this behavior is great,” Sloan added.

Sloan cited an incident involving Patricia McKeon, the wife of Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., the powerful head of the House Armed Services Committee.

When Patricia McKeon decided to run for a seat in the California State Assembly, large defense contractors began to make big donations to her campaign.

“They wanted Congressman McKeon to like them back,” Sloan said.


Mirror/WNPR Reporter Neena Satija contributed to this report, as did Michaela Crossen and Megan Forbes, interns on the Fairfield County News Desk.