Greenwich BET erupts in anger but forms investigative committee (by Ken Borsuk, CT Insider)
GREENWICH — After a contentious and emotional meeting Monday night marked by yelling and accusations of lies and threats, the Board of Estimate and Taxation voted to form a committee to investigate the actions of five of its Democratic members.
The vote came in at 7-5, with Democrat Tony Turner joining all six of the BET’s Republicans. The committee will investigate complaints and rulings against the board’s Democrats by the State Elections Enforcement Commission during the 2017 campaign.
The makeup of the committee was not immediately revealed; it is expected to have 32 days to complete its work with the clock having started Monday night.
The SEEC recently fined all six Democrats on the BET after it determined there were violations of state campaign law in the 2017 election. The complaint was filed in 2018 by state Republican Party Chair JR Romano.
However, the SEEC determined that five of the six, excepting Turner, made unintentional violations, according to a consent agreement that was released Monday.
The vote by the BET came after an angry, lengthy debate. Several Democrats called it a low point for the BET, but Michael Mason, the Republican caucus chair, said transparency and accountability are important, even if the meeting was an upsetting one.
“None of us intended for this night to happen, but some of us created it,” Mason said. He said it was a shame that Democrats broke rules and spoke out of bounds during the contentious debate.
“We (the Republicans) didn’t create this tonight, but the voters deserve an answer. They deserve to know,” he said. “We had 19 months since the complaint was filed.”
The SEEC determined all six Democrats on the BET violated state election law with regard to campaign spending in the 2017 municipal elections, when Democrats won control of the BET for the first time in recorded town history. Turner was fined $52,000 by the SEEC and the other five — BET Chair Jill Oberlander, David Weisbrod, Leslie Moriarty, Beth Krumeich and Jeff Ramer — were fined $1,000 each.
According to the SEEC, only Turner filed paperwork to spend more than $1,000 on the 2017 campaign, but he used his People First Committee to hold events and mail advertising that benefitted all six of the BET Democrats. Turner has borne the brunt of the blame from his fellow Democrats, who say he misled them about his spending while he insists he told them of his plans and that they approved.
Mason said he was sympathetic to colleagues who realized they had made a mistake and that “erasers are on pencils for everyone.” But in 19 the months since Romano filed the complaint, there was no accountability from the Democrats and none had taken responsibility, he said.
The issue now “has the voters’ interest,” Mason said, citing the discussions on social media and in the press.
“This will be done in an open and transparent manner and offer the opportunity for the residents and all parties involved to hear the facts (and) understand the potential impacts to the workings of the BET,” Mason said of the committee. “Those who may believe what they have heard and read will have the opportunity to restore their public trust in the most important body in our town government.”
Democrats noted that vote to form the committee came six weeks before the elections in which Oberlander is the Democratic candidate for first selectman and the Republicans are seeking to regain the majority on the BET.
Oberlander said money had already been wasted on billable hours for Town Attorney Wayne Fox to prepare for Monday’s debate about the committee.
“I think it’s a sad day for the BET and a sad day for the town of Greenwich,” she said. “There has already been $2,500 spent so far in taxpayer dollars on this inquiry. … I wonder whether taxpayers will be happy with the use of their funds for partisan political purposes.”
Oberlander said she was “thoroughly disappointed” in her colleagues’ support for the motion, which she later called an “outrageous political stunt.”
Four BET Republicans made the motion to form the committee. Turner joined with the Republicans in voting to approve the committee and said it was wrong for his fellow Democrats to blame him.
“It is clear to me that all of the facts are not out yet,” Turner said. “The motion provides for getting to the bottom of the total package of the 2017 campaign, something that has yet to be done. The people have yet to hear the truth and the people deserve the truth.”
Turner called the denials from his fellow Democrats “shameful” and said his Democratic colleagues, instead of wanting to get to the truth, were “choosing to sell others out to buy their political future.”
“If you are innocent, then act like it,” Turner angrily shouted at the other Democrats. “Give the people the facts.”
However, Moriarty said the timing of the motion to form the committee was “clearly selective to coincide with the current election cycle.” She insisted she had “nothing to hide” and called the committee “a big distraction” to the BET’s work.
Krumeich said the Democrats had already been investigated and penalized by the SEEC, and said it was something they took very seriously.
“It is one of the most embarrassing and saddening moments certainly in my life as someone who has taken seriously volunteer service in this town,” she said. “I apologize because I didn’t carry out the review of the laws and statutes that apply and question them in a moment when an election was going on, and we were all rushing to that Election Day. It was a mistake, but it was an honest one.”
Democrats were rebuffed in their attempts to delay the committee until after the election and expand its purview to other SEEC issues involving a BET member.
Oberlander cited a complaint against BET Republican Debra Hess from the 2015 election on which she was treasurer, before her tenure on the BET. The SEEC considered it a minor matter and dismissed the complaint, but Hess paid a $100 late fee because she did not get a campaign filing in on time.
Hess took great exception to Oberlander at Monday’s meeting, saying the two had spoken over the phone with Oberlander “basically threatening me that if I supported this motion there would be things coming out.”
“All of you talk at this board about honesty, cooperation and being above board, but none of you are behaving that way,” Hess told Oberlander and the Democrats. “I find it interesting, Ms. Oberlander, that your threat has actually come through. I felt so threatened that I almost went to the police and was talked out of it.”
Hess called the situation “out of control” and said she was flabbergasted that it could happen and that Oberlander could seek the highest office in town while threatening someone.
After the meeting, Oberlander said she considers Hess a friend and had called her as a courtesy because she was a proponent of the motion. Oberlander said she wanted to tell Hess that the motion would set a bad precedent for the BET and that if Hess pursued it she should understand that other SEEC matters involving BET members could be put on the table for reinvestigation.
“Since she has had her own SEEC issues, she states that she took this as a ‘threat’ somehow worthy of calling the police on,” Oberlander said. “It seems that Debra believes that putting forth a motion about Democrats is all about transparency, but when it is about Republicans it becomes criminal and worthy of police involvement.”
Turner got pushback from several of his fellow Democrats. Weisbrod asked Turner why, if felt he had done nothing wrong and had SEEC approval for the campaign spending, he didn’t ask for a hearing.
“Because he lost at the SEEC and had to settle for a large amount, he for whatever reason wants to take his vendetta against the SEEC or against Ms. Oberlander and others to the town and to waste everyone’s time in the town of Greenwich,” Weisbrod said.
Turner said he agreed to the settlement with the SEEC because it ultimately would not have been worth the money. And he insisted again Monday he followed the SEEC’s advice “in every way” on the campaign spending.
“I have made it very, very clear that immediately upon receiving the complaint from SEEC, I hired counsel and I have already waged an almost full two-year legal battle,” Turner said. “I determined by simply a cost-benefit analysis that it was going to cost far more than $52,000 to hire litigators to prepare for the hearing. … To say that I lost and to ask why I didn’t have a hearing is very public and I’ve been very transparent about that.”