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Agency Postpones Decision On Whether NU Chief's Pro-Malloy Fundraising Violated Law

The State Elections Enforcement Commission failed to reach a decision Tuesday on whether Northeast Utilities CEO Thomas J. May violated state law last year when he asked about 50 company managers to contribute money to help Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy win re-election.

The panel met behind closed doors in Hartford to review the results of a seven-month investigation by its staff, but emerged without taking action on what its agenda listed as "proposed findings and conclusions."

Asked what the holdup was, SEEC spokesman Joshua Foley said, "I can't comment." The next possible opportunity for a decision would be next week, he said.

The state Democratic Party's federal election account received $45,000 in donations from NU employees after May emailed his fundraising request last September.

Republicans charged that the fundraising skirted laws intended to keep state contractors' money out of campaigns. The enforcement commission began investigating the situation early this year, based on a citizen's complaint.

"It was an abuse [of May's position] and coercive of the employees," who would find it hard to ignore such an email from their big boss, said Andreas Duus III, the Greenwich resident who filed a complaint with the SEEC last Dec. 5.

The phrase "pay to play" refers to the practice of making contributions to political candidates in the hopes — or with the understanding — that when elected, they will hire your firm for a government contract or otherwise treat you well. When an executive from a company that already has dealings with the state supports an incumbent's re-election effort, that's also been called "pay-to-play."

The NU controversy has helped to keep that phrase in the public discussion, at a time when critics have said the state's system of public financing for campaigns — providing millions of taxpayer dollars to candidates, to keep special-interest money out of the political process — is being undermined by an influx of contractor money.

The idea of public financing was that the public would provide money to the candidates so they wouldn't continue to grab at the special interest money and indebt themselves to the givers. But now the special-interest money is still going into the system on a large scale — and the public is still paying the candidates' campaign bills.

Lawmakers banned state contractors' executives from contributing to Connecticut political campaigns after Gov. John G. Rowland was driven from office in 2004 in a corruption scandal over his receiving more than $100,000 in benefits from businessmen who got contracts and tax breaks from the his administration.

The SEEC keeps a long list of companies -- including NU -- whose top executives are banned from contributing to the state campaigns and state party committees.

However, contractors increasingly have found ways around that ban — and a big way has been for them to give to the "federal accounts" of state party organizations.

Such accounts are regulated by the Federal Election Commission, and are mainly intended for use in electing candidates for Congress or president. But federal law leaves enough leeway for some of that money to help a candidate for governor. For example, spending money to get Democratic voters to the polls for Rep. Rosa DeLauro in New Haven also gets them there for Malloy.

May's solicitation email of Sept. 17, 2013, specifically asked that the donations go to the Democrats' federal account.

"The next gubernatorial election cycle is upon us, and I am asking each of you to join me in financially supporting Connecticut's Governor Dannel P. Malloy" in next year's election, May wrote. "Please make contributions payable to: CT Democratic State Central Committee — Federal."

NU managers soon contributed more than $45,000 to that account — $10,000 of it from May himself.

NU has said it checked to be sure May's solicitation was legal. NU spokeswoman Caroline Pretyman has said that "the federal account is one that all NU individuals are lawfully permitted to participate in."

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