State Attorney General William Tong has declined to recuse himself from a potential Tweed New Haven Airport runway expansion appeal, despite what the state Senate’s top Republican calls Tong’s “political cozy relationship” with Mayor Toni Harp.
Such was the latest twist in the ongoing debate over Tweed’s proposed expansion of its main runway.
A day after Harp met with Gov. Ned Lamont in Hartford to pitch him on support Tweed’s expansion, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong sent a letter to North Haven Republican State Sen. Len Fasano in which he turned down the latter’s request that he recuse himself from whether or not his office will appeal a recent federal court ruling that would allow Tweed to expand its main runway beyond 5,600 feet.
That’s the current maximum runway length allowed by a 2009 state law that the federal court overruled as violating federal aviation safety regulations. Fasano and State Sen. Martin Looney, who represent the parts of New Haven and East Haven covered by the airport, have called on Tong and Gov. Ned Lamont to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I have considered your request in consultation with attorneys in my office,” Tong wrote to Fasano on Thursday, “and determined that there is no legal or ethical basis for my recusal. The decision on whether or not to take an appeal on this case is proceeding through the Office’s standard evaluation process pursuant to my constitutional and statutory responsibilities under Conn. Gen. Stat. 3-125.
“As I have state to you in the past,” he continued, “I remain firmly committed to open lines of communication and building upon the strong relationship we developed over years of serving together in the legislature. To that end, I am happy to meet in person to discuss your concerns and explore possibilities for resolving and settling this matter short of continued litigation and, perhaps, including the plaintiffs in that discussion. Please let me know if you would like to schedule a meeting with me and our appellate team in my office.”
Fasano told the Independent Thursday afternoon that he had initially asked Tong, a former Democratic state representative from Stamford, to recuse himself from this case because of his longstanding political relationship with Harp. Harp nominated Tong for attorney general at last year’s Democratic State Convention, he said. She has helped raise money for him, and he even made calls to local town delegates before New Haven’s Democratic Town Convention, urging them to support Harp’s bid for mayor.
“That speaks to a very familiar type of relationship where perhaps he could not be objective and carry out his duties in accordance with the statute,” Fasano said.
Lawyers are held to a code of ethics, he said, whereby even a hint of impropriety should be avoided. That hint is there, he said, based on his political history with Harp, an outspoken proponent for Tweed expansion.
Mayor Toni Harp made the trip to Hartford Wednesday afternoon to lobby Gov. Ned Lamont in person to support runway expansion at Tweed New Haven Airport.
City spokesperson Laurence Grotheer announced in an email press release sent out Wednesday afternoon that Harp had met with the governor in the state capital earlier in the day and had pitched him on the need for a busier local airport.
“I’m grateful to Governor Lamont for the time he took today for a candid, productive conversation about the strong alliance there is among greater New Haven business, academic, entrepreneurial, and environmental leaders in favor of runway improvements at Tweed New Haven Airport,” Harp is quoted as saying in the release.
“I told the governor I’m confident everyone in greater New Haven wants a vibrant future for this region, and that I’m eager to work with state leaders to improve the airport – within its existing footprint and fence line – mitigate neighborhood concerns, and realize the potential of this facility for the convenient use of thousands of additional Connecticut air travelers.”
Gubernatorial spokesperson Max Reiss told the Independent that the meet up with Harp was a “listening session for Governor Lamont. He’s listening to all stakeholders when it comes to transportation.”
The mayoral-gubernatorial tete-a-tete comes just a few weeks after a federal appeals court ruled that a 2009 state law prohibiting Tweed’s expansion of its main runway violated federal aviation safety laws.
State Senate leaders Martin Looney and Len Fasano, who both represent the areas of New Haven and East Haven that cover the city’s regional airport, have called on the governor and state Attorney General William Tong to appeal the court’s decision to the Supreme Court on the grounds that Connecticut should be allowed to establish its own laws governing airports within the state.
Supporters of runway expansion, including Harp and prominent local business leaders, have argued that a slightly longer runway would provide an economic boost by allowing new and frequent flights to destinations like Chicago and Florida.
Tong’s office has until early October to file an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the most recent court decision.
Reiss said that Lamont, who held a prominent campaign stop at the airport during his 2018 bid for the state’s top office, is still in “ongoing discussions with lawmakers” who both support and oppose Tweed expansion.
“He sees economic development as critical for that part of Connecticut,” he added.
This story was first published Aug. 1, 2019, in the New Haven Independent.