George Jepsen
George Jepsen ()

When George Jepsen was elected Connecticut attorney general in 2010, he came into office with a consumer protection agenda that sounded much like that of his predecessor, Richard Blumenthal.

Jepsen vowed to fight financial and mortgage fraud, to hold the line on utility rates, and to pursue business tax cheats that deprive the state of much-needed revenue and competitors of an even playing field. He says he has done that, returning more than $537 million to the state treasury in 2013 alone.

At the same time, Jepsen promised to adopt a style based more on negotiation and mediation than litigation. After Jepsen announced his reelection bid last week, even some past critics of the Attorney General’s Office agreed that the Democrat has seemed less eager to sue Connecticut businesses and more likely to preach compliance at workshops and meetings.

In an interview following his reelection announcement, Jepsen said he has “enormous respect” for Blumenthal, now a U.S. senator, and that the two men share “similar values and views of social justice and civil rights.” He traced the stylistic differences to the many years he spent in the Legislature.

“Dick had a prosecutor’s background and a litigator’s background,” Jepsen said. “My background has been more toward mediation of conflict. For instance, I have handled labor negotiations as Senate majority leader. If you want to get something done, you have to get people into a room, and that’s not like a courtroom.”

At the same time, Jepsen acknowledges that he’s taken a proactive approach to a number of consumer protection issues, ranging from data security to privacy protection. “Dick was a very active attorney general on a whole range of issues,” he said. “I’m really no less active, but I bring a different style to my activism.”

Among those who have noted the change is the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, which had criticized some of Blumenthal’s tactics, saying that his legal activism in the name of consumer protection hurt the state’s business climate. In contrast, Joe Brennan, senior vice president of public policy for the CBIA, called Jepsen “fair and balanced in carrying out the duties of his office.”

While mindful to point out the organization was not endorsing Jepsen in his upcoming race, Brennan said that while Blumenthal was quick to file notices of violations or lawsuits against businesses, Jepsen has taken a less adversarial approach.

“We’ve heard good feedback from our members for [Jepsen's] ability to be open and to listen, to not surprise people,” said Brennan. “If he has an issue, he’ll pick up the phone and discuss it.”

Jepsen’s low-key manner extended to his reelection announcement, which was made during a brief radio interview. For now, he has the field pretty much to himself. His opponent in the 2010 general election, Avon attorney Martha Dean, is running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

The only announced Republican candidate for attorney general is Kie Westby, a longtime Marine Corps reservist and Operation Desert Storm veteran who has a solo practice that focuses on personal injury, real estate and estate planning. He has held public office in Thomaston, previously serving on the school board and zoning commission.

In announcing his candidacy in late March, Westby said: “This state needs a strong AG who will protect the Constitution and the rule of law, limit government, and promote free enterprise.”

Before becoming attorney general, Jepsen spent 26 years in private practice, most recently with Cowdery, Ecker & Murphy and 16 years in the Legislature. He calls his current post “an endlessly interesting job, because of the variety and complexity of the issues you deal with on a daily basis.”

Like his predecessors have done, Jepsen said “97 percent of what the office does is nondiscretionary.” By law, the 200-lawyer office represents state agencies in legal actions, pursues overdue child-support payments and enforces child safety laws. But Jepsen said he understands the public will judge him based on the other 3 percent of his duties.

“Events really drive what we deal with,” he said. “The most painful experience has been dealing with certain aspects of Newtown school shootings, and monitoring the charities that have sprung up for the purpose of providing funding to help the victims of that tragedy.”

His time in office has also been marked by extreme weather, including the freak October snowstorm in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy the following year. He took Connecticut Light & Power to task following the 2011 snowstorm, saying the utility did not move quickly enough to restore power to thousands of state residents. He also claimed the utility impeded state regulators during an investigation into the outages. Earlier this year, Jepsen’s office and CL&P reached a settlement that will result in the utility donating $2.5 million to a nonprofit organization that provides energy assistance to needy families.

Asked about his other accomplishments, Jepsen pointed to his work with other state attorneys general on a national settlement involving five financial institutions that were accused of improper lending practices that left thousands of homeowners facing bankruptcy. Jepsen’s office helped forge a 2012 agreement that called for more than $26 billion in mortgage assistance nationwide, including $450 million for more than 6,3 00 Connecticut borrowers who were in danger of losing their homes.

He has also been aggressive in the area of privacy law. The Attorney General’s Office was involved in a multistate, $7 million settlement agreement with Google, which had been accused of secretly collecting private data while mapping streets. Afterward, he asked the web search giant to answer direct questions about its new product, Google Glass, and how images collected by users and other personal information might be shared without the consumers’ knowledge.

“When I first came into office,” Jepsen said, “the issue of privacy emerged very quickly and scarcely a week went by without a breach of privacy claim.”

He found privacy complaints cut across a wide range of issues, ranging from health-care patient information to sensitive financial information kept by businesses. “I wanted to be more proactive than reactive,” Jepsen said, “so I created a privacy task force to assess and respond to complaints.”

Jepsen sees a new possible threat to consumers in the consolidation of health-care providers. Changes in health-care laws since 2009 have allowed hospital corporations to acquire individual physicians groups. As a result of those mergers, doctors are now able to charge “facility fees” that they didn’t charge before. The combination of hospitals and doctor’s groups also raises antitrust concerns, Jepsen said, if they substantially reduce competition for medical services in certain areas.

In 2012, Jepsen’s office reviewed whether a merger between Yale-New Haven Hospital and The Hospital of St. Raphael would violate state law. Ultimately, Jepsen decided not to block the merger.

James Bergenn, a Shipman & Goodwin partner whose practice includes complex criminal and civil litigation, often represents clients who are being investigated by government agencies, including the Attorney General’s Office. Bergenn said he has noticed a willingness by Jepsen’s staff to resolve matters before bringing formal civil complaints in court, which he called a marked change from the Blumenthal era.

“The line attorneys in the Attorney General’s Office have quickly absorbed this shift [in philosophy], and are prepared to have more meaningful conversations representing targets of government investigations early in the process,” Bergenn said. “Although [the office] is not intended to be pro-business per se, matters are being handled in a very businesslike way.”

The CBIA’s Brennan noted that shortly after Jepsen took office, he created an Antitrust and Government Program Fraud Department. One initiative was to provide workshops for business owners. “He’s reached out to businesses and offered these workshops so people understand the law on unfair trade practices,” Brennan said. “The office is trying to help ensure compliance, rather than seeing if mistakes are made with fines and lawsuits.”

Lee Hoffman, a Pullman & Comley partner, took that observation a step further. “I think AG Jepsen has been more focused on getting the job done, and less focused on being in the headlines for doing the job,” said Hoffman, who chairs the Connecticut Bar Association’s Public Utility Law Section.

Despite the dispute with CL&P, Hoffman said Jepsen is more willing than his predecessor to try to understand the utilities’ point of view. Hoffman noted that he and Jepsen’s office are on the same side of a legal dispute in which an energy company wants to construct two wind farms in Colebrook. The controversial project has drawn challenges from a group that says the Connecticut Siting Council did not have authority to approve the wind farms.

That matter is now before the Connecticut Supreme Court. Hoffman has argued that the approval of the wind farms should stand. The Attorney General’s Office has argued that the Siting Council has the authority to make the decision regarding the wind farms, just as it does with other energy-generating facilities.

“This administration is very similar to the prior one in that they are both focused on assuring the consumers rights and assuring [utility] ratepayers pay as little as possible,” Hoffman said. However, he added, “Attorney General Jepsen has been far more deliberative, and has been far more willing to get to the issues regarding energy.” •