NB Politicus

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

Community Journalism Gone Bad

Posted in Housing, journalism by nbpoliticus on January 27, 2013


The New Britain City Journal, once a promising venture in community journalism, has plunged into a tabloid gutter of innuendo, rumor and personal attack over the issue of regulating non-owner occupied housing and paying for code enforcement in the city.  

The City Journal, violating basic rules of journalism with all kinds of unsubstantiated accusations, has taken sides and cast its lot with out-of-town landlords, particularly their loudest voice,  New Yorker Sam Zherka, the owner of Farmington Hills apartments (formerly Ledgecrest Village) and publisher of The Westchester Guardian


Yellow Journalism In New Britain


Every week now scurrilous stories and anonymous advertising of questionable legality are hammering the O’Brien administration and members of the Common Council. 


The latest “news story” in the January 25th edition, offers readers a $25,000 reward for information leading to “the arrest and conviction” of Mayor O’Brien and Aide Phil Sherwood to “clean up city (sic) of a corrupt and dirty administration.”  The Journal, at Zherka’s behest, is relying on readers to come up with the “dirt and corruption” to bring down Mayor O’Brien. 


Wrote City Journal Editor and Publisher Robin Vinci: “Anyone who has any information is asked to send it to: The New Britain City Journal….and it will be forwarded to ‘Taxpayers and Associates affiliated with Farmington Hills.”  

The situation at the New Britain City Journal is akin to what occurred at Zherka’s Westchester paper in 2010.   
In his column, “The ‘Zherkus’ is back in town,” Phil Reisman of  The Gannett-owned Journal News wrote a story on the resignation of the Guardian’s editor in chief, Sam Abady: 

“The falling-out was caused by the Sept. 16 issue, which featured a cover story about Yonkers Mayor Phil Amicone titled,’Rumours (sic) Of Impending Indictment?’ The piece by Hezi Aris, who succeeded Abady as editor, is all over the map in its criticism of the Mayor, but it never says exactly why Amicone is supposedly in hot water. It is overwrought, rife with tortured metaphorical references to the battle of Gallipoli, Shakespeare and ‘Waiting for Godot’ — and thick with innuendo and winking, read-between the lines suggestions of criminality. Nothing is substantiated. But the most damning piece is that Aris all but admits he didn’t have the only metaphor that matters — the smoking gun. The self incriminating sentence is as follows: ‘The rumor mill has been spewing out tidbits of information accepted as ‘facts’ by some, yet is unsubstantiated to date.” 

In that 2010 column Reisman reported that Zherka, the organizer of a Tea Party demonstration in White Plains (confirming his right-wing, extremist views),  had won a 1st amendment lawsuit when the Yonkers Mayor overstepped his bounds during a longstanding feud and ordered removal of newspaper dispensing boxes.  

“Besides owning a topless bar in New York City and publishing a vanity newspaper filled with political conspiracy theories, Zherka is known for being a self-styled ‘player’ with a flare for attracting attention,” wrote Reisman, “Zherka is also notorious for filing lawsuits against public officials he believes have crossed him. There are many who fall into this category — and many have also been the subject of sensational attack stories in The Guardian since it was started in 2006.”


When the City Journal began in October 2009 it was the subject of a laudatory post by NB Politicus. Then known as the Hardware City Journal, the grassroots, free-circulation paper was praised on this blog:

New Britain’s “October surprise” has nothing to do with the upcoming municipal election and everything to do with what may be a revival of community journalism in town.
The first edition of Hardware City Journal (HCJ), a 16-page free circulation paper, began circulating Friday (Oct. 16th) packed full of local news and information. The paper, with only a handful of ads upon which free circulation newspapers usually depend, is similar in content and appearance to the Berlin Citizen weekly next door. The upstart HCJ appears to be the brainchild of Robin Vinci, a former Herald reporter who covered Berlin and a native of New Britain. Vinci’s love for her native city comes through in an opening letter on the editorial page. She is a journalist who knows the town she is writing about past and present, a factor which can count for a lot in delivering news you may not find elsewhere.


Robin Vinci denies that anything has changed at the City Journal or that it has become Sam Zherka’s “vanity newspaper” in New Britain.   She maintains the out-of-town landlord’s money and influence are not a part of her publication. It’s hard to believe, however, that print and online ads  in a 16 page tabloid alone are paying for mailings of the paper into 23,000 households and for the addition of  “writers” and ad reps who may be imported by Zherka himself.  


Whatever the Vinci-Zherka relationship,  the tone and content of Ms. Vinci’s stories over the past few months calls into question her credibility as a reporter.  Her tirades without facts about the O’Brien administration sound more like a propagandist  beholden to special interests, the Republican Party or both.  

The City Journal has  abandoned the mission that you can still find on its online masthead: We will not publish accusations or hurtful comments. We feel New Britain is a great city and want to focus on the brighter, positive aspects of it.”

This is not the same City Journal that won praise here three and a half years ago.  The promise of “honest, straight-forward reporting” has given way to the strident and sensational and an agenda that is not in the public interest.

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Absentee Landlord Licenses, Fees Exist In Many Communities

Posted in Housing, municipal budget, Tax Policy by nbpoliticus on October 6, 2012

Updated November 21, 2012: Legitimate concerns about the city’s licensing of absentee landlords (all owner-occupied dwellings are excluded) have been drowned out by a phony anti-government coalition fueled by out-of-town interests and a failed GOP leadership seeking once again to use divisiveness for political gain.   The well-publicized and well-financed campaign of distortion is  now replete with paid protestors, intimidation of tenants and outrageous lies about the ordinance and who would be affected by it.

The absentee landlord lobby frets and whines that if this happens in New Britain, it will spread to other communities.  What they don’t want you to know is licensing and fees for absentee owners and investment properties exist from the Redwood forests to the New York highlands as a means of maintaining housing stock and improving landlord and tenant relations.  As the following post from NB Politicus noted in early October  the absentee landlord law suit flies in the face of similar ordinances in Connecticut and around the country, including laws that go far beyond what has been proposed for New Britain.

On October 4th, New Britain’s Common Council adopted new fee ordinances on landlords owning non-owner occupied, multi-unit apartments  —  policies designed to raise an alternative source of revenue as well as to strengthen anti-blight enforcement in multi-unit housing.

The $150 per unit flat fee represented a compromise over an earlier proposal that the Council’s Planning and Development committee left on the table. It will raise an estimated $1 million on rental properties with absentee owners.

A second ordinance known as a “hot-spot fee” would charge landlords $500 when emergency and public safety personnel are called to an apartment house five or more times in a year.  It is expected to generate another $1 million.

The combined measures can avert some service cuts and improve the anti-blight efforts as Mayor O’Brien and the Council seek to fill a $4 million hole growing out of  the structural deficits identified in the last fiscal year when O’Brien took office.  Clearly, they are not a panacea for the budget woes that stem from nearly a decade of gimmickry and one-short revenues of prior administrations. The license fee  is part of a strategy to avoid regressive taxation in tough fiscal times: raising the property tax  always falls disproportionately on homeowners and those least able to afford it.

The Common Council’s actions occurred amid a raucous and at times churlish crowd of opponents prominently led by the statewide landlord lobbying group which opposes the fees and previously opposed tougher anti-blight measures that the O’Brien Administration has adopted.

According to press reports, Bob De Cosmo, president of the Waterbury-based Connecticut Property Owners, said his group will file a class-action lawsuit against the city.  In an effort to bully and intimidate city councillors DeCosmo was quoted as saying “we will be looking into suing each individual council member that voted for this illegal tax.”

The hollow threat of a legal fight over the modest New Britain flat fee flies in the face of policies and fees that are found in many other  communities throughout the country and that have been on the books for a good long time.

In Connecticut, for example, Stamford has an annual fee structure on multi-family units tied to housing code enforcement: a $60 fee and $30 per additional unit for three to nine apartments; $75 and $40 per additional unit for 10 to 39 apartments, and; $200 fee and $60 per unit for 40 or more apartments. Sounds doubtful absentee landlords will dump their New Britain properties to go buy dwellings downstate.  Nor will they pull up stakes and go to places like Gainesville, FL, North Chicago IL, Burlington, NJ, Cedar Rapids IA, Salt Lake City UT, Minneapolis, MN (and many more). They’ll find landlord fees and licenses and charges for rental units in all of them.

One other thing municipalities here in Connecticut and elsewhere have as a sensible part of housing policy is a Certificate of Occupancy ordinance. That was lost to New Britain in the 1980s when Tom Bozek was the Council majority leader.  It would be a feather in the cap to Mayor O’Brien and the Council to restore the CO ordinance, not just for fees but to fairly handle the rights and responsibilities of landlords and tenants.

The Mayor and Common Council clearly didn’t deserve the insults and push back at the Council meeting from some of the attendees, particularly absentee landlords who need to learn a lesson in shared sacrifice without diminishing a return on their investments. They need to be responsible members of this community whether they live here or not.