State fines Greenwich BET Democrats for election law violations (by Ken Borsuk)
GREENWICH — Democratic members of the Board of Estimate and Taxation agreed Wednesday to pay fines of $1,000 each to the state for violating election law.
BET members Jill Oberlander, who is chair of the finance board and candidate for first selectman, as well as Leslie Moriarty, Jeff Ramer, Beth Krumeich and David Weisbrod, all agreed to consent orders with the State Elections Enforcement Commission. They will pay the fines within the next 10 days, closing an investigation into 2017’s municipal election, in which the Democrats won control of the BET for the first time in Greenwich history.
In 2018 Republicans, led by state party chair JR Romano, filed a complaint with the SEEC charging that the Democrats had spent far more than they were authorized to. Specifically, Democratic BET member Tony Turner spent money through his People First candidate committee to benefit all of the Democratic candidates, when legally he could use the committee money only on his own campaign.
The SEEC agreed, and last month fined Turner $52,000, which is the third largest penalty levied by the commission in history, said Joshua Foley, staff attorney for the SEEC. As part of that agreement, Turner neither confirmed nor denied wrongdoing. He has stated that all actions during the 2017 campaign were checked and approved by the SEEC.
In July, the SEEC levied a $15,000 fine against Mark Miller, a Stratford resident who served as Turner’s campaign treasurer.
The details of what is in the consent orders regarding the other Democrats were not immediately available for release, according to Foley. He said the orders have not been signed yet.
“I can’t comment further on the contents of the consent orders. We have to wait until they are signed and returned,” Foley said.
In a joint statement released on Wednesday morning, Oberlander, Krumeich, Moriarty, Ramer and Weisbrod said they did not mean to violate campaign finance law, and were cited for “an unintentional violation of failing to file an amended form” with regard to their campaign spending.
They placed the blame for the mistake on Turner, though he was not mentioned by name in the statement.
“During the campaign we relied on the statements of our fellow candidate who indicated he had SEEC approval for his campaign plans,” the statement read. “Only during the SEEC investigation did we learn that the SEEC had not approved his plan and that he had spent an unusually large amount of his own money. We strongly support campaign finance laws and the work of the SEEC.”
While some local Republicans were claiming publicly this week that the fine amount would be much higher than $1,000 apiece, Romano said Wednesday the amount of the fine wasn’t important because the SEEC had found a “coordinated effort to violate election law.”
“I could care less about the amount,” Romano said. “I see a conspiracy. The SEEC has determined they are all in on it.”
Romano added that a $1,000 fine is a significant amount for “those who don’t live in Greenwich.”
Of the six 2017 Democratic BET candidates, only Turner filed financial disclosure forms to allow for money to be raised in excess of $1,000 for his campaign. According to Turner’s settlement with the SEEC, his People First Committee spent a total of $213,294.56 during the 2017 election cycle, including about $15,000 that Turner donated and $200,000 that he loaned the committee. It states Turner spent a total of $343,500.
State statutes prohibit a candidate committee from making expenditures to promote a candidate other than the one the committee was established for. The SEEC determined all six of the Democratic BET candidates benefitted from the spending and calculated that the others received $6,125 each in “impermissible, in-kind contributions” from Turner’s committee.
Turner has continuously said that he believed he was acting within SEEC guidelines and that he had checked with the commission regularly about his activities. Last month, when the settlement was announced, Turner insisted he followed the SEEC’s advice “in every way” and accused the commission of being disingenuous in its findings.
Turner said he felt continuing a legal battle would end up exceeding the cost of the settlement.
In response to Turner’s statements, last month SEEC Executive Director and General Counsel Michael J. Brandi said, “We completely disagree with Mr. Turner’s mischaracterization of the facts. Nevertheless, the Consent Order, which he voluntarily entered into with advice from counsel, speaks for itself.”
Turner has also insisted that his Democratic BET colleagues supported his plans for the campaign through frequent emails.
On Wednesday, Turner stood by those past statements and noted he was a first-time candidate in 2017 and that the other Democrats were all incumbents.
“I was the rookie, I was proactively helping them,” Turner said. “These are all veteran participants in campaigning and had a responsibility for their own campaign compliance. Never once was I questioned about any aspect of the campaign. Any attorney worth their salt and based on experience, would have both trusted and verified the campaign mechanics vs. campaign laws. Their actions, and denial of them, are shameful.”
Turner is not running for reelection to the BET. In 2018, after the municipal election, he was elected chair of the Democratic Town Committee, a position he resigned from this summer citing a new bylaw in the party that prohibits people from holding a DTC executive position while running for office.
The other BET members are seeking office, though. Moriarty, Weisbrod, Krumeich and Ramer are all running for reelection to the BET and Oberlander is running as the Democratic candidate for first selectman.
On Wednesday, Oberlander issued her own statement again putting the blame on Turner and stating her support for the SEEC’s work.
“The SEEC acknowledges that I was misled by a colleague and that I had no intention to violate the requirement to change my filing status,” Oberlander said. “I take full responsibility. I was shocked to learn that I was implicated by a colleague’s actions; I will be far more careful in the future.”
Town resident Ed Dadakis, a former head of Greenwich’s Republican Town Committee and the town’s former representative in the state Republican Party, provided evidence to Romano as part of the complaint. On Wednesday he called it a “sad and sordid chapter” in the history of the BET.
“Today’s conclusion proves, without doubt, that Jill Oberlander and the four other BET Democrats were co-conspirators on a campaign fraud involving private and corporate funds to steal an election,” Dadakis said. “This is a complete violation of the public trust. Voters should be revolted and have serious questions about whether Jill Oberlander should serve them in a public capacity.”
Earlier this month four Republican members of the BET said they would call for a special committee to investigate the conduct of the BET Democrats except for Turner. On Wednesday, BET Republican caucus leader Mike Mason said without the actual agreement with the state that would close the investigation, which cannot be released until the fines are paid and the papers signed, he had no reason to pull the request for the committee, which could be discussed at the BET’s Sept. 23 meeting.
Regarding the criticism from Republicans regarding the matter, Oberlander said, “It’s disappointing to see Greenwich elected officials use political tactics to divert attention away from the important issues residents elected us to address.”
She added she would continue to run on her record as BET chair and “will continue to lead with a focus on integrity, transparency and accountability.”
The other four members running for reelection echoed a similar sentiment, saying they were proud of what they have accomplished including blocking Republican cuts to the school budget, increasing cyber security and strategic planning on climate change while keeping the two-year mill rate average lower than Republicans had.
“We are committed to overseeing the town’s finances with integrity and adherence to high ethical standards to provide needed services to our residents,” the caucus said in their statement.
By Ken Borsuk