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Esty’s marriage poses ethical challenges

WASHINGTON – Elizabeth Henderson married Dan Esty in 1984. Recently, their 29-year marriage has gained a new dimension: Ethical thicket.

Elizabeth Esty is a freshman member of Congress from Connecticut’s 5th District. Dan is the commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Their high-profile political careers have thrust them into the complex swirl of laws and regulations governing ethics and campaign finances, which Rep. Esty says she’s still learning to navigate.

Case in point: She has refunded $4,500 to two sets of campaign donors after the National Republican Congressional Committee accused her of “the appearance of conflict and impropriety” because the donors had links to the energy industry that is regulated by DEEP, her husband’s agency.

Esty’s successful 2012 election campaign – the most expensive House race in the state that year – raised $3,269,050 from more than 8,000 contributors.

In an interview, Esty said it’s “a learning process” as she and her husband navigate the complexities of ethics and campaign finance laws and regulations on the state and federal level.

“For me to do my job effectively, we need to continue to earn public confidence. That involves transparency and accountability. In addition to all the laws and state ethics rules and federal ethics rules that I’ve complied with, there’s a higher internal standard that I have been holding myself to. We didn’t quite achieve that on a couple of these and we’re going to redouble our efforts.”

She said she returned the contributions to “ensure this issue of public confidence.”

“Let me also be very clear: I have never had a conversation with my husband about campaign contributions and his job at DEEP. There is no relationship between a donation to my congressional campaign and his duties.

“The fact that we’ve only had a handful, given the extraordinary large number of contributions, means we’ve been doing a pretty good job but it can get better – and it has to get better.”

Esty returned $1,000 in contributions to two wind-energy developers who were penalized by DEEP for illegally cutting 2.5 acres of state forest. She also returned $3,500 in contributions from executives and lobbyists for Northeast Utilities, which is regulated by DEEP.

Meanwhile, fund-raising for the 2014 election campaigns is in full swing.

Esty raised $232,600 as of March 31, according to the Federal Election Commission, while a potential Republican challenger, real estate developer Mark Greenberg, of Litchfield, reported $59,000 in his campaign treasury, all of it supplied by him.

Republicans have criticized Dan Esty for what they view as his own casual attitude about ethical appearances.

State Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola asked the state attorney general to investigate the propriety of an April 23 conference call Esty participated in during which he gave a briefing to some of the clients of investment firm UBS Securities the day before a scheduled vote on an energy bill.

Esty said there was nothing improper about the call and that it is part of his job to brief investment companies and other parties about the state’s energy plans and needs. He did apologize, however, for the timing of the call.

Labriola’s request was referred to the state ethics office.