Regulatory documents show that in 2008, then-Attorney General Blumenthal complained that CL&P failed to hire new employees that were used to justify rate increases it sought, and received.

"CL&P's compliance filings on critical position hiring, for example, indicated that an aggregate of one position when the [Department of Public Utility Control] approved an expected increase of 85 positions," according to regulatory documents from a 2008 rate case decision. "Actually, for the specific position of lineman, CL&P's number of employees dropped."

Blint said that was an old case and that hiring parameters set out in the most recent rate case, in 2010, had been met — a claim backed up by a spokesman for the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority and an official with the state Office of Consumer Counsel, which represents the interests of ratepayers.

According to testimony from the hearings on utility response to Tropical Storm Irene, CL&P has actually increased the number of line workers and troubleshooters from 385 in 2001 to 422 in 2011.

"While a number of years ago, there was an issue with CL&P not keeping the number of line workers in a rate case," said Richard Sobolewski, supervisor of technical analysis at the Office of Consumer Counsel, "OCC believes that for at least the past five years the electric companies have maintained the level of line workers allowed in rates."

Moreover, CL&P officials said last week, technology advancements have made it possible for the company to avert some field work.

Still, union officials say critical line workers are stretched too thin. They say they are not equipped for full-blown power outages such as those caused by last week's snowstorm, complicating CL&P's wait for out-of-state crews.

Questioning Culture

The former federal official who volunteered to conduct an inquiry for Malloy might look broadly at the question of whether profit-driven practices by CL&P hampered the company's efforts over the last eight days. One possible example is the company's policy of not paying standby fees to contractors to put them on call for restoring power after a storm.

Paying a standby fee means the utility will have to pay the money whether or not the contractor is called to help. Blint said CL&P might reconsider that policy and others related to contractors.

"Of course, we're always open to looking at options for improvement, and once we've completed our restoration efforts, we can evaluate those options," Blint said.

At least five contractors who sent crews to help after Tropical Storm Irene said they have yet to be paid for that work, and others were working on jobs elsewhere in the Northeast.

Jeffrey Butler, the CL&P president and chief operating officer, insisted under media questioning that the company pays its bills on time.

Out-of-state crews did not start arriving until mid-week. In New Jersey, PSE&G said its out-of-state reinforcements were arriving as early as Sunday.

Frank E. Cirillo, business manager for Local 420 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Waterbury, said the culture of the company has changed in the last decade, accelerated by management that did not rise through the ranks.

"The difference, 10 years ago, most in charge were part of the CL&P family, it was us," Cirillo said. "Now, the [NU] CEO is from Baltimore, the president of CL&P is from California."

Cirillo and Richard Sank, business manager for IBEW Local 457, which is based in Meriden and also represents CL&P workers, stopped short last week of linking lean hiring practices with the pay of top executives. They did, however, call it excessive.

Federal filings by NU show that the four highest paid executives immediately below CEO Charles W. Shivery all had sharp increases in their total compensation in 2010, two of them more than doubling. Shivery's package last year was worth $8.25 million, up from $7.8 million in 2009.

"Nobody's worth that kind of money in a state the size of Connecticut," Cirillo said. "It's shameful."

Courant staff writer Mara Lee contributed to this story.