The Waterbury-based Connecticut Property Owners Alliance, which last year hosted campaign meetings prominently featuring former Farmington Hills Apartment Complex Owner Sam Zherka, announced the formation of a political action committee (PAC) in the final two months of the 2013 municipal campaign. “The CT Property Owners Alliance is pleased to announce the formation of its Political Action Committee and will host an event on Wednesday September 18th, 7:00 pm at the Whinstone Restaurant in New Britain to celebrate. It’s only fitting the event be held in New Britain with all the controversy created by its current Mayor Tim O’Brien and his housing policies. Michael Telesca, a longtime landlord and chairmen of the State Independent Party is heading up the committee” stated the CTPOA in a press release posted to its web site.
The CTPOA, representing absentee landlord interests in New Britain and other communities, was acting appropriately by forming a political action committee to oppose policies they were against and to support candidates pledging to change those policies. The CTPOA PAC, however, gave no money to any candidates in the legal, legitimate way it was set up to do. It raised $150 and spent $150 — the only reported expenditure was a $150 cash payment for bookkeeping expenses to the PAC’s treasurer, according to the committee’s termination report earlier this year.
You didn’t have to be a political junkie to know that by the time the landlord group’s PAC formed there were already tens of thousands of unreported and unaccounted for dollars in circulation on behalf of the Mayoral campaign of Erin Stewart. Individual absentee landlords were taking out full-page ads in the New Britain City Journal. The shadowy and now defunct website, www.savenewbritain.com, was promoting candidates and smearing Mayor O’Brien and City Council Democrats — its web domain registered to the CTPOA’s Bob DeCosmo. Stewart and her slate became the darlings of the CTPOA for a promise to repeal a fee on absentee landlords used to pay for housing code enforcement — a common practice in cities across the United States that reduces burdens on the property tax.
The CTPOA political committee also escaped a complaint filed by the New Britain Democratic Chair at the height of the campaign for disseminating an email from “Allen Court Apartments” that “invites you to meet Erin Stewart….there are only 13 days left till the election. New Britain needs Erin Stewart to win this election to fix the mess the current Mayor has created.” The complaint was part of a tit-for-tat when the Republican Party Chair filed a frivolous complaint against a member of the Democratic slate. Subsequently, a November 1 2013 full-page political ad supporting Stewart for Mayor was published with a “paid for by CTPOA PAC” but no expenses were ever reported as required by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC).
At issue in the “Allen Court Apartments” e-mail is a prohibition in state statute that bans an independent expenditure for communication, including web-based communication, that promotes the success or defeat of any candidate “unless such communication bears upon its face the words “paid for by.” The State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) concluded that the CT POA PAC was just forwarding a communication from someone else and not required to do a disclaimer. The SEEC, under-staffed and increasingly limited in its ability to do full-scale investigations at the municipal level, “declined to investigate the matter further.” And who can blame them? It’s hard to find anything wrong about a committee that is neither raising money nor doling out contributions nor incurring any expenses.
No one, Democrats included, during 2013 or since has really “followed the money” behind a campaign of yellow journalism, personal attacks and off the books political organizing.
Back in the fall of 2012, at the same Whinstone Tavern where CTPOA celebrated its short-lived “PAC”, Sam Zherka, charged last month with witness tampering and multiple fraud charges amounting to more than $150 million, told his CTPOA audience that a group of “seven landlords” had already raised $100,000 to “wipe out” Mayor Tim O’Brien and Common Council Democrats in the next election. Former Mayor Tim Stewart warmly introduced Zherka at that meeting, saying Zherka “is the driving force behind the steering committee to fight this issue” after which Zherka announced a $100,000 fund against Democratic elected officials.
All of which brings us back to the question: what did the CTPOA PAC do and when did it do it? Aside from a pre-election, full-page ad in the New Britain City Journal for which no expenses were reported, the CTPOA PAC, according to SEEC reports, opened and shut without doing much of anything.
Instead, the out-of-town landlord group and the Stewart campaign, both with “plausible deniability”, hitched their wagons to Sam Zherka, the New Britain City Journal and a model of political mayhem imported from Zherka’s Westchester Guardian newspaper in New York to reach their goals and attain public office.
Questions will continue to linger on the assault on civility and democracy in New Britain last year.