NB Politicus

Stewart Penalized For Using Taxpayer Mailing To Boost Her 2017 Re-election Campaign

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, New Britain Republicans by nbpoliticus on December 1, 2018

Mayor Erin Stewart violated state campaign law by promoting her candidacy through an official mailing of tax bills to city residents during the 2017 municipal campaign, according to a ruling by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC).

The SEEC, at its November 14th meeting, fined Mayor Stewart $500, citing a violation under state law (9-610) that prohibits incumbents “during the three months preceding an election in which (she) is a candidate for reelection or election to another office” from using “public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his (or her) election or reelection.”

Using her campaign slogan “Leading The Way” in the taxpayer-funded brochure, Stewart cited saving the city from fiscal ruin, good bond ratings, reorganizing city hall departments “to find efficiencies and improve customer service and “a continuous commitment to provide our teachers and our children with the proper tools for learning and exploring.”  The official message was a carbon copy of what could be found at the time on Stewart’s campaign website.  The mailing with the brochure was sent by Tax Collector Cheryl Blogoslawski’s office and paid for by the city. Although the mailer came directly from the Tax Collector’s office, Ms. Blogoslawski was absolved of any wrongdoing by the commission.

During the SEEC inquiry Mayor Stewart, through an attorney, defended her use of the mailing at the height of the municipal election season. “The pamphlet is issued annually and is sent in the same envelope with our property tax bills. Given the lack of a timely issued state budget and the commensurate uncertainty surrounding final municipal aid (and, therefore, our tax rate), New Britain joined many other municipalities across Connecticut in electing to post the property tax bills later than normal this fiscal year,” Stewart argued. She contended that the “message from the Mayor to taxpayers” and “a section discussing progress made by the City in numerous areas” contained “nothing of a political nature.”  The mailing at issue was first reported in September 2017 in an NBPoliticus post  and in a story published by The New Britain Progressive

Rejecting the Mayor’s argument on a complaint brought by Democratic Town Chair Bill Shortell,  the SEEC found that Stewart’s “message from the Mayor” and the citing of New Britain’s accomplishments “are irrelevant to the tax bill and therefore their inclusion in the mailer is violative of 9-610. The Commission finds that the mailer plainly could have been limited to the mill rate and various other information regarding motor vehicle taxes in New Britain, without including favorable references to the budget and past performance  of the Mayor of New Britain and her administration.”

Car Tax

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s campaign sent with motor vehicle tax bills at the height of the municipal election campaign in 2017. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

Related Posts

Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing of Car Tax Bills?

Will Erin Stewart Get Another Off The Books Push From An Absentee Landlord in 2017?

 

Will Erin Stewart Get Another Off The Books Push From An Absentee Landlord in 2017?

By John McNamara

On the eve of  the 2015 municipal election scores of  tenants in New Britain got a notice about a possible rent increase from their landlord.

It wasn’t an official increase but a not so subtle endorsement of Mayor Erin Stewart who at the time was cruising to re-election for a second term.

The unsigned communication in English and Spanish read:

“To our residents: In order to help keep your rent from increasing we suggest that on Election Day, Tuesday, November 3rd, you vote for  Mayor Stewart and her entire Row B Team.  It’s important that we all work together to keep rents from increasing by electing responsible leaders like Mayor Erin Stewart  as she has restored New Britain to a place where people can afford to live.”

If anyone thought this message  — mailed first class by The Carabetta Companies of Meriden —- was  a civic-minded promotion of voter turnout by a major out-of-town landlord they were mistaken.  Carabetta’s  tenants were being warned in intimidating fashion: Vote for the Republican Stewart or your rent will go up.

carabetta

Bilingual letter to tenants of Carabetta properties mailed on the eve of the 2015 municipal election.

The “To Our Residents” note amounted to an unreported  corporate contribution with promotion of  the Stewart re-election phone number for a ride to the polls and offer of help on getting registered to vote.  “A Team Stewart member will assist you,” said the notice not attributed to any political committee as it should have been.

State election law spells out the kind of violation that could be involved here (see below).  Moreover, penalties could potentially  apply to the Stewart committee for “coordinating” activities with their off the books landlord friends.

Sec. 9-613. (Formerly Sec. 9-333o). Business entities. (a) Contributions or expenditures for candidate or party prohibited. No business entity shall make any contributions or expenditures to, or for the benefit of, any candidate’s campaign for election to any public office or position subject to this chapter or for nomination at a primary for any such office or position, or to promote the defeat of any candidate for any such office or position. No business entity shall make any other contributions or expenditures to promote the success or defeat of any political party, except as provided in subsection (b) of this section.

 

No doubt the tactic from one of the city’s absentee property owners was a throwback to the 2013 municipal campaign when Stewart and the Republicans teamed up with outside landlords to wage a scorched-earth, months-long campaign against Democrats pouring as much as $100,000 of dark money into the election.

At issue was a controversial  ordinance that set fees for non-owner occupied properties to pay for housing and code enforcement — a policy subsequently repealed that can be found without controversy in hundreds of communities across the country.  Ironically — aside from concerns about blight and raucous parties in rentals around CCSU — the issue that caused the vitriolic campaign in 2013 never surfaced in 2015.

Team Stewart and friends just couldn’t help themselves go low when they could have taken a pass on intimidating tenants into voting a certain way in 2015.   In the era of Citizens United and the anonymous corporate money throughout the political and legislative system it’s easier to make the calculation that any judgment on blatant violations of the law would come months later when the State Elections Enforcement Commission rendered a decision.  And any SEEC fine levied would be worth the  investment to get away with messing with tenants about how they should vote.

As Election Day 2017 approaches consider this a cautionary tale.  Team Stewart — now in an increasingly tight race for City Hall — won’t hesitate to use all manner of 11th hour mischief to stay in power like the tenant notice of two years ago.  Voters need to know that their franchise is personal and private and not subject to influence by their landlord, their boss or anyone else.

Full disclosure: I was the late starting and under-funded Democratic nominee for Mayor and the Democratic Chair in 2015 not willing to see Ms. Stewart go unchallenged. Consequently, any rent increases incurred over the last two years have come on Ms. Stewart’s watch) 

 

 

Questions Linger On Money That Fueled 2013 Campaign Against Democrats

Posted in Campaign Finance, city politics and government, Housing by nbpoliticus on October 4, 2014

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).

This excerpt from a full-page ad in the 11/1/13 New Britain City Journal on behalf of the Stewart Mayoral campaign says "paid for" by the CTPOA but no expenses were reported for the ad.

This excerpt from a full-page ad in the 11/1/13 New Britain City Journal on behalf of the Stewart Mayoral campaign says “paid for” by the CTPOA-PAC but no expenses were reported for the ad. The PAC was opened and shut with $150 in contributions and $150 paid the the PAC Chair for bookkeeping expenses with no other expenses reported.

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.

 

Zherka Arrest A Reminder Of Yellow Journalism And Dark Money In 2013 City Campaign

Posted in Campaign Finance, city government, courts, Hard Hittin' New Britain, Housing by nbpoliticus on September 28, 2014

The arrest and jailing of former Farmington Hills Apartment Complex owner Sam Zherka earlier this month  was a fresh reminder of the collusion between and among New Britain Republicans, the New Britain City Journal and a small group of out-of-town landlords throughout  2013.

Zherka faces a long indictment for alleged bank loan fraud, income tax fraud and witness tampering .  Two of the bank fraud charges relate to his ownership of Farmington Hills complex in the Ledgecrest Avenue area.

In New Britain, Zherka was a ring leader  for out-of-town landlords who, in Zherka’s own words, put together $100,000 last year to “wipe out” Mayor O’Brien and Democrats on the Common Council.

The political spending began at a raucous November 2012 City Hall hearing on proposed fees for absentee landlords to pay for housing and code enforcement.  Zherka admitted to transporting tenants and paying them to go to City Hall to oppose the policy. Thereafter the assault on the truth in the pages of the City Journal began.

At a CT Property Owners Association meeting at Stanley Golf Course in November 2012 former Mayor Tim Stewart  gave a glowing introduction to  Zherka who then announced the raising of $100,000 to “wipe out” elected officials in New Britain.

At the same meeting, current Corporation Counsel Gennaro Bizzarro ( this year’s 24th District Republican for state representative), addressed the CTPOA group. Bizzarro, in addition to his City Hall duties, has represented the CTPOA through his law practice. Mayor Stewart and other members of the Republican slate addressed CTPOA meetings pledging to repeal absentee landlord fees.

Following Zherka’s arrest this month,  the New Britain Republican Town Committee  blocked the video of Stewart, Zherka and Bizzarro speaking together; covering up the off the books financial help and gutter political action carried out by Zherka on their behalf last year.  Last year’s cash cow and friendly political provocateur is this year’s liability.

The Waterbury-based Connecticut Property Owners Alliance (CTPOA), led by Bob DeCosmo , later established a political action committee to finance a campaign against Democrats. But the CTPOA PAC was merely a front group. Very little campaign money was raised in legitimate and legal ways by the out-of-town landlord PAC for Stewart or any other candidates.

The  “$100,000” announced by Zherka  almost certainly was poured into the New Britain City Journal to enable it editor and publisher, Robin Vinci, to mail her publication into households week after week. Postage costs alone run into the thousands of dollars for one mailing to New Britain households. Zherka’s largesse to Vinci also included the services of a “reporter” from his New York newspaper, to write a laudatory piece on Zherka

Scurrilous is too kind a word to describe the numerous editions of the City Journal throughout 2013 and into 2014 which contained misrepresentations and inflammatory language against O’Brien and members of the Common Council.

Perhaps the most damning example of spreading falsehoods and Vinci’s vitriol is found in January 24, 2013  story in the City Journal offering a $10,000 reward for Mayor O’Brien’s arrest and conviction “to clean up a corrupt and dirty administration.”

After extensively quoting Zherka attacking the O’Brien administration, Vinci took leave of her questionable status as a journalist to write: “Anyone who has any information  is asked to send it to: The New Britain City Journal, PO Box 2111, New Britain, CT 06050 and it will be forwarded to Taxpayers and Associates affiliated with Farmington Hills.”

Zherka and the CTPOA also created a now defunct website, http://www.savenewbritain.com,  that spread the City Journal’s false and inflammatory information on the city administration and council Democrats last year.

Don’t count on Sam Zherka’s name appearing in the pages of the City Journal nor at the GOP town committee site anymore. It’s an open question, however, whether Zherka’s  ill-gotten money and publishing resources may still be underwriting the City Journal that has morphed into a newsletter for Mayor Erin Stewart in the first year of her administration.

Residents of all political stripes committed to the rule of law and civility in local politics can only hope that dark campaign money,  voter intimidation and yellow journalism masquerading as community journalism will not be repeated in our city.

What occurred during the  2013 municipal election was an assault on democracy for which many questions remain to be answered.

From http://www.newbritaindemocrat.org

Correction: An earlier version of the post referenced a CTPOA meeting”at the height” of the 2013 campaign. The meeting was held in November 2012

ALEC: Buying Influence and Tilting Laws Against Solar Energy

Posted in Campaign Finance, energy, environment, Money in Politics, Solar Energy by nbpoliticus on January 2, 2014

Let the Sun Shine In

Isaiah_Poole

Now the Koch brothers are coming after my solar panels.
I had solar panels installed on the roof of our Washington, D.C. home this year. My household took advantage of a generous tax incentive from the District government and a creative leasing deal offered by the solar panel seller.
caf-alec-Brookhaven National Laboratory

Brookhaven National Laboratory/Flickr
Our electric bills fell by at least a third. When people make this choice, the regional electric company grows less pressured to spend money to expand generating capacity and the installation business creates good local jobs. Customers who use solar energy also reduce carbon emissions.
What’s not to love?
According to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative network better known as ALEC, our solar panels make us “free riders.” What?
Yes, according to ALEC, an organization that specializes in getting the right-wing agenda written into state laws, people like me who invest in energy-efficiency and shrinking our carbon footprints ought to be penalized.
Why does ALEC want us punished? Since it’s bankrolled by, among others, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, it’s hard not to surmise that they’re worried about a threat to fossil fuels businesses. Koch Industries’ operations include refineriesoil and natural gas pipelines, and petrochemicals
That’s no conspiracy theory. Recently the British newspaper The Guardian wrote aboutthe assault on solar panels as part of a broader exposé on ALEC.
John Eick, the legislative analyst for ALEC’s energy, environment and agriculture program, confirmed to The Guardian that the organization would support making solar panel users pay extra for the electricity they generate. That’s already about to happen in Arizona, where homeowners who use solar panels will pay an average of about $5 extra a month for the privilege, starting in January.
The solar power industry called the new rule a victory only because power companies in the state were demanding assessments of as much as $100 a month — more than high enough to deter families from considering switching to solar.
Making solar energy cost-prohibitive for homeowners and businesses is part of a larger ALEC objective, affirmed at its recent annual meeting, to continue its effort to eliminate state renewable energy mandates.
According to meeting minutes, ALEC has already succeeded in getting legislation introduced in 15 states to “reform, freeze, or repeal their state’s renewable mandate.” ALEC lobbyists are pushing policies through states that will speed up climate change and increase pollution. They’re threatening the renewable energy industry, which is already creating new jobs and saving money for homeowners and businesses.
Without the current policy paralysis in Washington and a lack of bold, creative thinking about how to build a new, green economy at the national level, they wouldn’t be making so much headway.
My organization, Institute for America’s Future — together with the Center for American Progress and the BlueGreen Alliance — recently published a report that shows what’s at stake with ALEC’s destructive agenda.
Our “green industrial revolution” report recommends tying together a series of regional solutions that take advantage of the unique assets of each part of the country, such as the abundance of sun in the West and the wind off the Atlantic coast, into a cohesive whole.
These regional strategies would be supported by smart federal policies, such as establishing a price for carbon emissions and a national clean energy standard, creating certainty and stability in the alternative energy tax credit market, and providing strong support for advanced energy manufacturing.
This is the way to unleash the kind of innovation and job creation our economy — and our rapidly warming planet — desperately needs.
My solar panels are the envy of my block and I wish more of my neighbors will be able to make the same choice I did. But they won’t if fossil-fuel dinosaurs like the Koch brothers and right-wing organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council keep casting their dark clouds on efforts to build a clean energy future.
It’s time for them to step aside and let the sun shine in.
Isaiah J. Poole is the editor of OurFuture.org, the website of the Campaign for America’s Future. OurFuture.org
Distributed via OtherWords. OtherWords.org

Whither Public Campaign Financing in Connecticut? March 15th Forum in Hartford

Posted in Campaign Finance by nbpoliticus on March 14, 2010

The odds of the Citzen’s Election Program (CEP)- Connecticut’s public financing of elections – surviving intact for the 2010 election cycle grow longer by the hour. Lawmakers, in fact, may be cooking up a remedy that preserves public financing for Governor and statewide offices, but eliminates the CEP for legislative seats. 

With the reform law in jeopardy and the presence of at least three or more well-healed candidates in state races willing to spend gazzilions to buy an election, the old axiom first spoken by the 1960s CA Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh applies to CT more than ever: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”  There’s a good chance we’ll see lobbying kings Pat Sullivan, Jay Malycynsky, Brendan Kennedy and their brethren writing more checks than planned at the Officer’s Club and other watering holes around Hartford before this campaign season ends.

Preserving any part of  the CEP will be hard. That’s too bad. The law’s implementation has spawned an unusually capable field of candidates for statewide offices in both parties who saw a level-playing field. They need a system in which their ideas and records might count as much as all the “mother’s milk” they’d have to raise to compete.

All of this stems from the Green Party of CT vs. Garfield case and a ruling that found the law was too restrictive for minor party candidates to get in the game. The ACLU and the Greens want to make sure the field is level and not tilted toward a two-party monopoly. One of the good questions to pose now is how have other states such as Maine been able to implement and preserve public financing without adverse court rulings.

On Monday March 15th at the Hartford Public Library the Hartford Votes ~ Hartford Vota Coalition  is sponsoring a panel discussion on the issues of money in politics and campaign finance reform, and how it affects Connecticut. The panelists include: Heath Fahle, Policy Director, Yankee Institute; Cheri Quickmire, Executive Director, Connecticut Common Cause; Beth Rotman, Director of the Citizens’ Elections Program, SEEC; State Representative Gary Holder Winfield, New Haven and others. The forum is set for Monday, March 15th from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the HPL, 500 Main Street, Hartford. For more information, email ksnell@hplct.org or call 860.695.6282.

New Year Finally Brings Dramatic Change To Financing of Campaigns

Posted in Campaign Finance, Legislature by nbpoliticus on December 28, 2007

A system of public financing of political campaigns will bring dramatic change to many state House and Senate races in 2008. While the full impact will not be felt until 2010 when races for Governor and statewide offices will occur, the law’s intent is to begin to restrict the corrosive influence of money in politics that reached its nadir during the Rowland years.

Without John Rowland’s violations of the public trust coming to light, the land of steady habits might still be stuck with a government increasingly influenced by excessive political money and corporate-funded special interests.

It is worth noting (with no small amount of irony) that in 2000 Connecticut’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly approved a Clean Elections law modeled after Maine’s law that was adopted by referendum in 1996. Governor Rowland, unbowed by the imprisonment of his State Treasurer, Paul Silvester, for graft in the handling of state pension funds, vetoed a Connecticut clean election law. Had it been adopted the reform might have spared Rowland himself from jail time.

“It is an exciting time for democracy in Connecticut,” says State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) who served on the GAE Committee that helped craft legislation designed to diminish the influence of lobbyist money and that includes an outright contribution ban on contractors who do business with the state.

“For generations, we have dreamed of an open election system in which people’s voices matter more than special interest money. Now, it is a reality,” declares O’Brien in launching his 2008 campaign for the state House that will rely on grassroots contributions. To voluntarily opt in to the “Citizen’s Election Program” state House candidates will be required to obtain individual contributions in their communities. A state representative must obtain 150 donations in his or her community; a state senator must obtain 300 donations, most of which will be small-scale contributions of no more than $100. Candidates who opt not to participate will be required to file and disclose campaign finance information.

The state Elections Enforcement Commission, which is administering the Citizen’s Election Program, has set forth basic goals:
(1) to allow candidates to compete without reliance on special interest money; (2) to curtail excessive spending and create a more level playing field among candidates; (3) to give candidates without access to sources of wealth a meaningful opportunity to seek elective office, and;(4) to provide the public with meaningful and timely disclosure of campaign finances.

Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election program, adopted in the wake of the Rowland scandals, is modeled after Maine’s Clean Elections law. The Maine law now involves 80% of legislative candidates from all political persuasions. It has won praise for reducing excessive spending and, according to a recent study by the Maine ethics commission, allowed candidates to devote more time talking issues and getting feedback from voters.

The high stakes test for Connecticut’s citizen-funded election program won’t come until gubernatorial and statewide races in 2010. There may also be a need to adjust the law to empower Town Committees and encourage grassroots financing in the new system. And no one should assume that the Clean Elections Program is all that will be needed to enforce strong ethics in government. What is clear, however, is that Connecticut lawmakers, pushed by reformers such as Rep. O’Brien, had to strike a blow against corruption in the wake of John Rowland’s exit and indiscretions.

Opponents of public financing had always used the argument that taxpayer money should not finance political campaigns. But that argument finally fell to the side when the question was asked: how much more will taxpayers pay for abuses of the public trust made possible by campaigns funded entirely by private interests?

“This is an important moment in history, and I would like to ask you to be a part of reclaiming our democracy,” says Rep. O’Brien in making his campaign part of a citizen-based election system.

In the long term, proponents of the law such as O’Brien and New Britain’s Democratic lawmakers view the new campaign system as a catalyst to enacting major reforms. Progress on key consumer issues such as a more equitable tax system, universal health care and controlling energy and utility costs have long been thwarted by powerful corporate lobbyists whose influence have now been diminished in the 2008 election cycle.

Thanks John Rowland. We could not have done it without you.