In a push for public support as state regulators prepared to reject United Illuminating’s request for a rate hike, the company warned Southern Connecticut State University faculty that funding the company provided the business school could be in jeopardy, asking them to send pre-written letters of support to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.
“If [PURA’s draft decision rejecting the rate hike] is finalized without significant changes, we believe it will impact UI’s financial integrity and, thus, our ability to partner with organizations like yours in the future,” United Illuminating lobbyist Al Carbone said in an Aug. 9 email to SCSU Business Executive in Residence Tony Rescigno and Assistant Director of External Relations Amy Grotzke.
United Illuminating said it donated $25,000 to support Southern’s Public Utilities Management track this year, and it was one of several utilities that helped the school develop that program, along with the Regional Water Authority, Metropolitan District and Eversource.
The email exchange, revealed in a public records request by the Energy and Policy Institute and shared with CT Examiner, showed that Carbone asked them to “personalize, revise and send” a letter drafted by UI, which urged PURA not to go ahead with a draft proposal to reject almost all of the company’s rate hike.
“Count us in, we’ll take care of this right away,” Rescigno replied, copying Southern’s School of Business Dean Jess Boronico on the email. “Good luck!”
Itai Vardi, a researcher with Energy Policy Institute – a self-described “watchdog” group aiming to counter misinformation by the fossil fuel industry – said it’s inappropriate for a utility that donates to a nonprofit or public school to request a favor in exchange for that funding.
“It’s not right that UI is leveraging or weaponizing their philanthropic power to ask favors from these organizations,” Vardi said. “Meaningful or authentic giving comes without strings attached, without an expectation of getting something in return.”
Several community organizations in the Bridgeport and New Haven areas that receive money from UI for their programs also submitted similarly worded letters in support of the company.
In response, UI spokesperson Sarah Wall Fliotsos said the company has been transparent that PURA’s decision not to approve UI’s rate hike will limit the resources it has to invest in local communities and the Connecticut economy.
She said the company is proud to contribute thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in GDP across the state, and is concerned about the impact of PURA’s decision.
“We reached out to over 100 partners, including our local universities and other community organizations, to inform them of the consequences of PURA’s decision on their operations,” she said. “We support their efforts as they continue to express their opposition, and we will continue to do so.”
After the email exchange with Carbone, Boronico, Rescigno and Grotzke each submitted identical letters to PURA, which included the entire letter Carbone provided them. They added three paragraphs explaining how United Illuminating has supported the university’s public utilities management program with guest speakers and input on curriculum.
“These types of unique solutions to workforce development problems are critical to the health of the region, and through their partnership with Southern, UI has shown their commitment to the region and to creating a lasting impact in the community,” said a letter signed by Boronico and appearing on Southern letterhead that was filed with PURA.
Later, Boronico used language provided by Carbone to explain to regulators how PURA rejecting UI’s rate hike request would harm the “economy and upward trajectory for all of Connecticut.”
“It is obvious to me that these moves will force UI to turn inwards and focus exclusively on its obligation to provide safe and reliable service,” Boronico wrote. “The other investments a healthy utility can make – from investments in community partnerships with organizations like mine, to investments in infrastructure that promote sustainability, like electric vehicle chargers – will necessarily be put on the backburner. UI will have enough challenges in simply operating the electric grid in this severe regulatory environment – there will be no remaining capital to invest in the community.”
Boronico and Rescigno did not return CT Examiner’s requests for comment on the letters. Patrick Dilger, Southern’s communications director, emailed a brief statement.
“Southern has had a long and productive partnership with UI, which we look forward to continuing,” Dilger said. “However, the letters in question were written independently by individuals and do not represent an official stance by the university.”
Vardi said employees of publicly funded universities like Southern are public employees and shouldn’t sign their name to a document written by the industry. He said it’s troubling that the emails don’t show any deliberation before they decide to sign on to a ghostwritten letter that makes sweeping statements on the health of Connecticut’s economy.
“Just parroting what the industry claims is true is a breach of confidence and public trust,” Vardi said.
But Vardi emphasized his main issue is with UI, because they have the power to leverage their contribution to the school.
“They are the ones who provided funding support to these charitable organizations and public university programs,” Vardi said. “And they’re the ones that went back and asked for something in return.”