Campaign finance watchdogs call for greater transparency from Malloy

June 22, 2015

By Neil Vigdor

Pressure is mounting on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to release donor lists and internal campaign emails detailing how a direct mail blitz — coordinated by the state Democratic Party — was paid for during the final weeks of last year’s election.

The head of a major Connecticut watchdog group expressed her disappointment Friday that Democrats chose not comply with a subpoena seeking access to the records. The deadline for turning over the materials to the state Elections Enforcement Commission was Thursday.

“They were clear that they wanted to be seen as the open, transparent party. If they won’t share that kind of information, that calls that into question,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut.

The commission is investigating whether Malloy’s campaign used money from the party’s federal fundraising account to illegally circumvent Connecticut’s ban on state contractor money in state elections, as well as a spending cap for tax-payer funded candidates.

Malloy office’s referred questions on the matter to the state Democratic Party, which maintains the get-out-the-vote mailers fall under federal law and are outside the jurisdiction of the state agency.

“There is an unavoidable conflict between federal and state law here,” said Leigh Appleby, a spokesman for the Connecticut Democrats. “In accordance to federal law, we have no discretion over what is qualified as a (get-out-the-vote) mailer — there are explicit provisions which forced our hand.”

The commission declined to comment on whether it will ask a court to enforce its subpoena powers, which would take a vote by the commission’s five members. The group’s next meeting is scheduled for July 14.

The subpoena issued last month covers all financial records related to the mailers, as well as lists of contributors who gave more than $1,000 to the party’s federal fundraising account, which is separate from campaign funds held for state races.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint by Connecticut’s top Republican, Jerry Labriola Jr., who charged that Democrats violated the law by mingling funds explicitly reserved for U.S. House and Senate contests, as well as presidential races, to help Malloy.

Critics of the mailers, which the party estimated cost $250,000, say that the get-out-the-vote element was minimal and relegated to a single line in the pro-Malloy mailers.

“It’s a transparent ploy by the state Democratic Party to evade important Connecticut campaign finance laws,” said Paul S. Ryan, a senior counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C. “To me this isn’t even a close call. They are gubernatorial election mailers, plain and simple. They’re using federal law as a fig leaf to try to get away with it.”

Connecticut’s clean elections law prohibits state contractors from making political contributions to the state fundraising accounts of the parties, but they are allowed to give to the federal accounts.

Democrats contend that all get-out-the-vote materials must be paid for out of their federal fundraising account, even if a candidate for state office is prominently featured in them. They are now entangled in litigation against the state elections enforcement agency to try to get it to issue a formal ruling on get-out-the-vote activity.
“We have gone to court to get clarity from an impartial authority over which set of laws apply to state parties,” Appleby said. “That is an incredibly important issue that needs to be settled by the court before this inquiry continues.”

Multiple Republicans called on Malloy Friday to fork over the materials, including state Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano of North Haven and Sen. L. Scott Frantz of Greenwich.

“If there’s nothing to hide, hand them over,” Frantz said.

Democrats fired back, saying that the state elections enforcement agency censured Republican legislative candidates last fall for using taxpayer-funded mailers for coordinated attacks against the governor.