LITCHFIELD—For nearly 40 minutes the three Democrats vying for the open 5th District congressional seat stuck to the issues of climate change, reviving manufacturing, and gun control. The fireworks didn’t come until the end. 

League of Women Voters Moderator Jean Rabinow asked how the candidates would handle the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s rejection of the Obama administration’s debt forgiveness program for homeowners.

Dan Roberti of Kent was the first to answer the question by saying he would continue to fight for homeowners underwater on their mortgages. He also talked about the importance of community banks and how he’s treated by his community bank versus the service he gets at Bank of America.

Former State Rep. Elizabeth Esty saw her opening and took it.

“This is where I think I have to point something out,” Esty said. “Mr. Roberti is the co-owner of a lobbying firm. Citibank, Citicorp is one of its clients. Citibank is one of the banks that is responsible for the mess that we’re in with this mortgage crisis.”

Esty alleged that with Citicorp as a client she doesn’t know how Roberti can assure the citizens of northwestern Connecticut he will stand up for community banks, if elected to Congress.

“It should scare every voter in the 5th District,” Esty said. “That a powerful D.C. lobbyist is trying to install a personal congressman in our part of Connecticut.”

Esty was referring to Vin Roberti, Dan Roberti’s father who owns one of the biggest government relations firms in Washington D.C.

Up until recently, Roberti’s trust—which was started by his father on his behalf—owned a 50 percent share of Roberti Global Associates, which in turn was invested in Roberti Associates, the lobbying and government relations firm. Roberti has since divested himself and sold his shares of Roberti Global Associates to his brother’s trust.

Roberti didn’t get a chance during the debate to offer a rebuttal to the statements that were made by Esty because the time had run out. Rabinow suggested he address it in his closing statement.

“First and foremost you seem to have me confused with my father,” Roberti said. “I am not an owner of a lobbying firm. I am not a lobbyist…I have divested myself of anything that has to do with that business.”

Roberti said he’s run the daily operations of a homeless shelter and helped clean up the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

“I am not a lobbyist. Shame on you for making a lie like that,” Roberti said to Esty. “When we were talking about energy and the environment I gave you the benefit of the doubt and I let you get your point across.”

He alleged that Esty made a decision to purchase stock ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, Chevron Texaco—“some of the biggest polluters we have out there.”

“You made a decision to take donations from people your husband regulates as commissioner of the D.E.E.P [Department of Energy and Environmental Protection,” Roberti said.

He said he made it a point to divest himself of any conflicts of interest, unlike Esty who has taken money from employees of these companies.

However, Esty alleged during a post-debate question and answer session that there is a SuperPAC of donors, including some of his father’s clients, who are spending money on television advertisements smearing both her and Donovan. New Directions for America is funded by at least two of his father’s clients, but because the PAC can’t coordinate with the campaign Roberti said he has no control over what it does with its money.

Besides, Roberti said it’s hypocritical of Esty to complain about independent expenditures being made on behalf of a campaign because Esty has the national pro-choice women’s PAC EMILY’s List helping her with mailers attacking him and Donovan. EMILY’s List has spent at least $38,000 on mailers and its members have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to her campaign.

Esty made the decision to go after Roberti because “in the last two weeks I have seen $500,000, a half a million dollars, of attack ads launched by Dan Roberti.”

She said she’s never seen that in a Democratic primary race. She said the SuperPAC “bank rolled by his father’s clients” has launched at least $300,000 in attack ads and the rest have been done by his campaign, which was hurting for cash until recently.

“In the closing weeks of the campaign, the public needs to know this,” Esty said. “He does not have a record in this state, people don’t know who he is.”

She said she believes if Roberti’s attacks went unanswered then it would have an impact.

“I hope it doesn’t discourage voters from voting,” Esty said.

Even though the debate was technically closed to the public and the door to the room was guarded by the League of Women Voters volunteer, one member of the public was able to find a seat.

Paula Schneider of Brookfield quizzed both Roberti and Esty after the debate about their answers to the accusations. She was concerned about the ties the younger Roberti had to his father’s lobbying firm, and about whether Esty took money from the big oil companies.

Esty explained she had not taken money from the companies, but she does know some employees that work for them since she’s almost 53 years old.

“I have friends who work for companies all over the state and all over the country,” Esty said. “The implication is that those companies are investing in me and that is simply absolutely not true.”

There was no focus on the federal investigation, which saw two of Chris Donovan’s former campaign workers get arrested for trying to allegedly trade his influence as speaker of the house for straw donations to the congressional campaign. The League of Women Voters made it clear from the start that the questions during the debate would be focused on the issues.

Donovan left the library as reporters surrounded Esty and Roberti to ask about their attacks of each other. When it was Donovan’s turn he was gone.

“You had two millionaires on the stage who put half a million dollars into their campaign and one guy with a record for 30 years of fighting for Connecticut’s working families,” Gabe Rosenberg, Donovan’s spokesman, said in the parking lot. “He’s going to run on that record and he’s going to win on that record.”