AP Interview: Conn. AG drops whistleblower claims

September 1, 2011 - 1:55 PM

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen has closed hundreds of public corruption investigations and several high-profile probes of businesses that were launched by his predecessor, Richard Blumenthal, a longtime consumer advocate who left the post earlier this year to become a U.S. senator.

Jepsen, the state Senate's former Democratic majority leader, has closed 513 of the 699 whistleblower cases he inherited from Blumenthal when he took office in January, according to numbers provided by the attorney general's office to The Associated Press. State law shields the identities of whistleblowers and details of the complaints. But they typically concern claims of corruption or mishandling of state duties or a state contract.

In an interview with the AP, Jepsen said many of the probes lacked merit. The portion of cases in which "something meaningfully wrong is going on" is small, he said.

Blumenthal said in an interview Thursday that he would not comment on decisions made by his successor, but he said he kept cases open even when they were not active because important information could always develop later. He said he had no knowledge of which cases were closed and declined to comment on differences between his and Jepsen's approaches to the job.

"I would say very emphatically my record speaks for itself, for my aggressive and proactive approach to law enforcement to protect business people, consumers, all the people of Connecticut," Blumenthal said.

Matt O'Connor, a spokesman for a coalition of state employee unions, said he and others he's talked to cannot recall such a large number of whistleblower cases being closed. But because allegations of fraud or shoddy work by government agencies and contractors are protected from public release, he said there's no way to know why Jepsen acted.

Jepsen said he has ended several probes of companies and other organizations because he and the companies settled the dispute "or it may be that there's not very much there."

He said public officials need to tread carefully where regulation of business and job creation is at stake.

"I'm a pretty low-key person," he said. "I like to see all sides of an issue before I jump in. My background academically and professionally and politically is nonconfrontational. We do plenty of litigation here but I just generally view litigation ought to be as a last resort."

His approach is a marked contrast to Blumenthal, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year after 20 years as attorney general. Blumenthal sued numerous companies over allegations of consumer rip-offs, illegal dumping and violations of workers' rights in the name of agencies such as the Department of Consumer Protection and Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Jepsen said he has been a political ally of Blumenthal's for decades, even working as an intern for Blumenthal in 1979, and that any contrast between the two is "really more my own style and background" than it is about policy differences.

That would include a lower media profile. Jepsen touts his work in news releases and Twitter messages rather than at news conferences. A large space in his Hartford office where reporters and TV camera people once attended Blumenthal's news conferences is now occupied by a conference table.

Jepsen, 56, said his emphasis is on easing foreclosures during the housing crisis and demanding better privacy protections from social media giants such as Facebook and Google.

"The big issue in Connecticut and the whole country is jobs and the economic environment," he said.

The investigations dropped by Jepsen include one targeting so-called retained asset accounts, which are interest-bearing accounts established by life insurance companies allowing beneficiaries to write checks rather than receive a lump sum payment. Jepsen said his predecessor "raised a lot of questions" about the practice, but he saw nothing wrong with it as long as life insurance companies disclose all policies related to the accounts.

He also has closed an investigation into the handling of charitable contributions by the Connecticut Humane Society, saying he did not find evidence that it entered into financial transactions unrelated to its charitable work, and a probe of the Sleepy's mattress company, saying there was no evidence of bedbug infestations.

For his part, Blumenthal said businesses benefit as well as consumers from law enforcement that helps to ensure a level playing field.

"Regardless of recession or prosperity, people and consumers benefit from fair law enforcement," he said. "Businesses are often victims of law-breaking themselves."

Business owners have been pleased with outreach efforts by Jepsen, who has been meeting with them and giving advance notice about investigations and news releases sent to the media, said Joe Brennan, a lobbyist for Connecticut's largest business group.

"I think people definitely notice a difference in style," said Brennan, senior vice president for public policy at the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. "I don't think there's any question about that."

The 513 whistleblower cases that Jepsen dropped were filed under state law that establishes a reporting system for anyone with knowledge of corruption, unethical practices, violation of state laws or regulations or other abuse. His office said some cases claimed health care fraud.

But Jepsen said in the interview that many cases did not fit the requirements set by the whistleblower law, some were minor personnel matters and other allegations "were just not true."

Jepsen said he intends to let businesses know they will "get a fair shake from this office."

"I don't want innocent parties to feel like they're being harassed," he said.