November 19, 2018

An 'issues junky,' AG George Jepsen reflects on his tenure as he ponders his next act

HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
HBJ Photo | Gregory Seay
As his 30-year public career heads to an apparent close, George Jepsen is proud of the last eight years as Connecticut's 24th attorney general. A Democrat, Jepsen is credited in and outside Connecticut for running a tight legal ship that generated integrity and results.
Photo | Contributed
Outgoing Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen says credibility is vital to protecting the rights of the state and its citizens.

Budget enhancer

The AG's office under Jepsen, which has a $30 million operating budget, has been a revenue producer for the state, generating $636.3 million — largely from settlements — in fiscal 2017 alone.

George Jepsen

Age: 63

Born: Hattiesburg, Miss.

Education: Graduated 1976 from Dartmouth College with a bachelor's degree in government; a cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where he concurrently earned a master's degree in public policy in 1982.

Career: Practicing lawyer; served 16 years in the Connecticut General Assembly as a state representative and state senator — was Senate majority leader from 1997 to 2003; served as Democratic State Party chairman from 2003 to 2005.

Personal: Married, two sons

After almost 30 years in the political arena and close to wrapping the last of his two terms as Connecticut's 24th attorney general, George Jepsen is searching for his next act before eventual retirement.

Uncertain as yet precisely what the lawyer and ex-Democratic Senate majority leader will be doing with his free time, Jepsen, who turns 64 in late November, sat down with the Hartford Business Journal weeks ahead of the state's Nov. 6 mid-term election to talk about his past, present and future.

Jepsen, who was recently named to Gov.-elect Ned Lamont's transition team, will spend his last day in office in January, when he will be replaced by fellow Democrat William Tong, a state senator who defeated Republican challenger Sue Hatfield.

An avowed "issues junky,'' Jepsen says he is proudest that on his watch Connecticut remained a standard-bearer enforcing civil statutes for protecting its sovereignty, and the well-being of its residents and businesses.

Major cases during his tenure ranged from holding companies accountable for data breaches and mispricing on e-books and other consumables, to healthcare-related fraud and overcharges, to being among the state AGs who helped negotiate a $25 billion federal-state settlement in 2012 — the largest in U.S. history — with five big banks over mortgage foreclosure abuses.

Jepsen is widely hailed among his AG peers as someone who shunned partisanship to lead members of a 200-lawyer team in lucrative multi-state civil settlements like the $10 billion one with Volkswagen over its diesel-emissions cheating scandal. Connecticut reaped tens of millions of dollars from the settlement.

One of his landmark settlements involved RBS Securities Inc. agreeing in 2016 to pay Connecticut $120 million to resolve an investigation of its underwriting of toxic mortgage-backed securities.

But Jepsen says an even bigger multi-state fraud probe — with the potential for a multibillion-dollar settlement — involving generic-drug overpricing looms, one that Connecticut launched and that is now in the hands of the U.S. Justice Department.

"General Jepsen is one of the strongest leaders we've ever had and one of the finest AGs I've ever worked with,'' said Chris Toth, executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General, of which Jepsen is past president.

Meantime, Jepsen is seen by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association and others in the state's business community as a fair-minded counter to his predecessor and fellow Democrat, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, whom critics claim cherished the media spotlight when pressing civil claims.

During his tenure, Jepsen also worked to close hundreds of inactive cases.

Why was it important to you to serve as Connecticut's AG?

Ever since I was young and in grade school, I was always interested in a career in public service. I've always been a real issues junky. Sixteen years in the Connecticut General Assembly, including six as majority leader of the Senate — and I loved every minute of that.

But even when you're a leader in the legislature, your job is herding cats. … Being attorney general is different in that you're much more of a quarterback, a unilateral actor. The variety and complexity of the issues that stream through the office touches every nook and cranny of public life in the state. So the opportunity on a daily basis to deal with issues of real import to the public and be able to act alone, it's incredibly rewarding.

Are you glad you stepped forward?

It's been the most rewarding work experience of my life.

If you hadn't served two terms as AG, what would you be doing?

I'd probably be in private practice. Possibly academia.

(Jepsen taught while in law school and is a former adjunct professor at the UConn School of Law.)

What are your future plans?

I haven't ruled anything out. Everything's on the table.

(Jepsen said there's been outreach to him over the years for jobs ranging from the financial-services sector to Obama White House positions. He declined to elaborate, except to say he rejected all of them. With respect to private-sector opportunities, he said he wouldn't entertain offers until after the election. He said he has no plans to join the Lamont administration or seek a judgeship.)

Why did you decide not to run for re-election?

"I'll turn 64 in (late) November. I want to work a dozen more years. And at 64 I'll have more and different opportunities than I'll have at 68."

What's been your biggest accomplishments/contributions as AG?

What I'm proudest of is that Connecticut has in my tenure been a leader nationally. … I'm very proud of the fact that states' attorneys general work well together on a bipartisan basis to tackle issues of national significance. When Equifax has a data breach, it's not just one state, it's the whole country. When Wall Street collapses in 2008, it affects the entire economy.

AGs are not like the U.S. Congress. We're not paralyzed with gridlock. Some issues split on a partisan basis; some issues split on a regional basis. But where the relationships are preserved, and we can work together on a bipartisan basis, we do.

And Connecticut, in my years, has become a leader in these national issues, ranging from the national mortgage-foreclosure settlement, which brought $25 billion in relief to distressed homeowners, including about 6,000 Connecticut homeowners. Suing Standard & Poor's and Moody's for mislabeling mortgage-backed securities. Connecticut is the lead state pulling for other states on all the big data breaches — Home Depot, Neiman Marcus, Anthem and Equifax.

Connecticut currently is one of the lead states on the opioid crisis.

And Connecticut uniquely leads a massive 47-state investigation into pervasive price fixing in the generic-drug market, which has cost consumers billions and billions of dollars. I think that's going to break open in a more public way than it has.

How did the generic drug price-fixing investigation come about?

In July of 2014, one of the guys in our antitrust department read a New York Times article about a spike in generic-drug prices and asked permission to investigate. … Pretty soon we were turning over information to the Justice Department, which started an investigation as well. For more than two years, it was Connecticut alone investigating. We launched the multi-state (probe) in Sept. 2016. Now, we have 47 states helping us. It's going to be enormous.

We filed a lawsuit (in October 2017) involving 15 drugs, 18 drug manufacturers and two highly placed executives.

(The investigation centers on drugmakers and pharmaceutical executives who have allegedly colluded to inflate generic-drug prices.)

What's the one thing you wish you could have done differently as AG?

There are some issues I wish we could have done more on. But the one that sticks out the most for me is the crumbling-foundations issue. I've got limits to my jurisdiction. For example, I don't have any criminal jurisdiction. There are limits to what legal authority I have. My heart goes out to the homeowners whose life savings are locked up in … foundations that are collapsing.

How would you characterize your relationship with the business community?

I believe I have an extremely positive relationship with the business community. Even before I was elected, I initiated a program of systematic outreach to virtually every sector I could identify of the business community, including one-on-one or small-group visits with the general counsels of leading corporations, large insurance companies, to speaking to local chambers of commerce, to identifying industry trade groups, whether it was the hospital association, the [Connecticut Business & Industry Association], the Hartford Chamber. And especially over the course of my election campaign in 2010, plus the first year or two in office.

And the message was a consistent message, which is that my door would always be open. You're not going to learn about an investigation through a press conference. We're not going to shoot first, then ask questions. … Even though I don't have criminal jurisdiction, I'm acutely aware that if I get the facts wrong, or the law wrong, I can destroy an innocent person's life forever. I really try to keep focused on that we get things right.

And the other perspective I've brought in my discussions with the business community was, sure, there are bad actors out there that you need to go after … and seek real punishment for them. But more often than not, in my life experience, issues are nuanced. They're not gray on gray. Or they're not 100 percent right, or 100 percent wrong.

That being my frame of mind means I tend to approach most issues as problems to be solved, not as opportunities for confrontation. I want the solution to the problem, or to the issue, to reflect the nuance. … I think the business community appreciated that approach.

What's your advice for your successor?

The most important advice is to recognize that the most important asset this office has is its credibility. And you have to protect the credibility of the office. And that means saying 'no' to your friends. … Keep playing the legal issues completely straight, and make sure you're listening to all sides.

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