Jepsen’s uneasy relationship with labor

Nearly three years after taking office, Attorney General George C. Jepsen still struggles to define his relationship with Connecticut’s political left, especially the major public-employee unions that play a significant role in Democratic politics.

The petition he filed Friday with the U.S. Supreme Court seeking a review of a labor victory over former Gov. John G. Rowland was long expected, but that didn’t stop a correction officer active in AFSCME from lashing out on Facebook: “Wow, Jepsen stabs me in the back. AGAIN.”

Jepsen is meeting Tuesday with activists who say they still are trying to understand how aggressive the A.G. is willing to be in the review of hospital mergers. And other union leaders say they have their own questions about Jepsen’s approach to an office redefined by his high-profile predecessor, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

“I think that the attorney general needs to have some serious conversations with folks,” said Lori J. Pelletier, who recently succeeded John Olsen as head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO. “In order for him to do that, he’s got to reach out.”

Jepsen, 58, is a former union lawyer, state Senate majority leader and one-time Democratic state chairman, credentials that would seem to portend a smooth relationship with the AFL-CIO, which is dominated by two public-employee unions, AFSCME Council 4 and AFT Connecticut.

But the attorney general, according to some activists, has taken a narrower view of the office than Blumenthal, who held the post for 20 years. In several instances, Jepsen also has broken with labor, such as his appeal to the Supreme Court of a lower court ruling that faulted Rowland’s handing of layoffs a decade ago and potentially exposed the state to millions of dollars in damages.

Many AFSCME members, including the correction officer who posted the Facebook comment, also have long memories: They recall that Jepsen helped reject an arbitration award for correction officers as a state Senate leader in 1997. It would have awarded members a 4 percent annual raise at a time when other unions were getting 2.5 percent.

“We’ve had problems with him for a long time,” said Sal Luciano, the executive director of AFSCME Council 4.

More recently, Jepsen stopped the passage of the so-called “captive audience” bill in 2011 with an opinion that federal labor law pre-empted the state from restricting how employers interact with their employees during union organizing drives. Labor was furious, but Jepsen and his deputy, Nora Dannehy, said the opinion reflected well-established case law.

“Sometimes, the painful part of my job is telling people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear,” Jepsen said. “And that’s not simply in the context of labor issues, it’s in other contexts as well. When people are your friends, it’s doubly hard. But when a consensus exists among my top lawyers on an issue, it would be wrong to try to stretch the law to go the other way.”

Jepsen said he has relied on a circle of senior advisers led by Dannehy, a senior federal prosecutor whom he named deputy attorney general soon after taking office in January 2011. Dannehy, who is leaving state service for the private sector next week, will be succeeded by Perry Zinn Rowthorn, a longtime assistant attorney general.

In his first nine months in office, Jepsen closed hundreds of whistleblower cases that were opened by Blumenthal but had gone dormant without reaching a conclusion. He also has departed from Blumenthal’s practice of frequent press conferences, which made Blumenthal one of the best-known politicians in Connecticut.

“I think people have been surprised at how different of an attorney general George has been,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. “He made it clear he was going to have a different style, but the changes have been more than stylistic.”

Swan said consumer advocates would like to see Jepsen be more aggressive, though he did credit Jepsen for helping advocates kill a plan by his close ally, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, to auction the rights to serve certain electric customers. Jepsen’s opposition showed independence, Swan said.

Jepsen said he believes he has maintained the office’s role as a guardian of consumer rights by participating in national lawsuits and settlements, as well as lobbying the General Assembly.

The office was a lead negotiator last year in a multi-state settlement against leading banks over foreclosure abuses, producing $448.3 million in debt relief for 6,260 borrowers in the state, according to a court monitor.

Luciano questioned why Jepsen was not joining other attorneys general in investigating the Libor scandal involving the possible manipulation of international lending rates by global banks, but Jepsen said Connecticut actually is taking a lead role in the investigation with New York.

“There is nothing to say publicly,” said Jepsen, whose office did not publicize the investigation. “But it is a very active investigation.”

Union leaders and other activists say Jepsen has been far more cautious than Blumenthal in communicating with them.

On the issue of a for-profit health care company’s proposed purchase of Waterbury Hospital, which is a nonprofit like most hospitals in Connecticut, Jepsen declined to meet with representatives of CCAG and unions representing employees at the hospital.

“The scope of our review is very narrow,” Jepsen said.

Jepsen said his role in the conversion of nonprofit institutions to for-profit entities is limited and well-defined by state law: He acts as a judge overseeing such a merger to ensure that the nonprofit’s charitable assets are protected.

Had he met with the unions, which were seeking leverage in contract talks, and then issued a ruling adverse to the hospital, the conversation could have been grounds for a lawsuit, he said.

“Communication can be very tricky in a legal context,” Jepsen said. “If the legislature passes a law, it is our job to defend it. We have to be very careful what we put in writing or say publicly.”

Luciano, the AFSCME leader, said he was disappointed that Jepsen didn’t consult with labor representatives before he decided to seek a U.S. Supreme Court review of the Rowland case.

“It seems like not doing that made it impossible not to seek a settlement,” Luciano said.

A federal appeals court has concluded that Rowland illegally laid off unionized state employees a decade ago and ordered a trial judge to begin the process of assessing damages. Jepsen said he decided after consulting with senior lawyers in his office that the appellate opinion infringed on the ability of state and local governments to manage their workforces.

If the high court declines to hear the case, there still is a strong incentive for both sides to settle, Jepsen said.

Melodie Peters, the president of AFT Connecticut, who served in the state Senate with Jepsen, also is seeking a clear-the-air meeting with Jepsen. She declined to identify the areas of friction.

“I am planning to sit down with the attorney general for a discussion on a number of issues,” Peters said by email. “We’ve already reached out to request the meeting and I’m looking forward to a frank conversation with Attorney General Jepsen.”

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