While the events leading up to the 2017 municipal election may feel like ancient history, the tumultuous campaign season and events are reverberating today.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) has fined the former Democratic Town Committee Chair and BET member Tony Turner $52,000 following an investigation into a complaint by Joseph R Romano, Jr, Chair of the CT Republican party.
The SEEC said that in 2017 Turner, then a candidate for BET, violated campaign financing rules when he used his People First Committee to help the campaigns of the other Democratic BET candidates through efforts including mailings and a series of barbecues featuring entertainment.
Specifically the SEEC said Turner initially filed a registration form with the Town Clerk saying he did not intend to spend more than $1,000 during the campaign, and therefore was not required to form a candidate committee. But at the end of September Turner amended his registration and formed a committee, the People First Committee.
The SEEC said Turner violated the law by spending over $76,000 from that committee to benefit the others, violating General Statute 9-616.
The SEEC also said it was also a violation for Turner to use $71,000 from his business bank account to pay for campaign design and production of mailers that benefited himself and the other Democratic candidates. They said on April 30, 2018, after Romano’s complaint was filed, he reimbursed the LLC $71,410.03 from his personal funds.
Turner agreed to pay the fine to settle the investigation but vehemently denies wrongdoing, saying he diligently sought guidance from the State’s senior campaign compliance attorneys and that, “The financial aspects of the campaign were either known by, pre-approved by SEEC, or included suggestions from their communication in writing, to be compliant.”
Over the course of the campaign, the People First Committee spent a total of $213,294. Turner gave the committee $15,000, loaned it another $200,000 and reported to his treasurer he spent $44,811 of his own money to promote his candidacy.
In all (candidate committee, LLC and personal funds), Turner spent an estimated $343,500 during the 2017 election cycle.
Though the BET is comprised of 12 members – 6 Democrats and 6 Republicans – and all candidates ran unopposed in 2017, what was at stake for Democrats was securing the most cumulative votes to guarantee they would control the board and have a tie-breaking vote. Also the chair gets to make key committee assignments.
Indeed the Democrats were the top vote getters and after the election Jill Oberlander was voted in as BET chair 12-0. Jeff Ramer was voted in as vice chair.
During the campaign, back on Oct 2, 2017, Mr. Turner emailed the other Democratic BET candidates telling them he had consulted with the SEEC about paying for their shared goal of securing the cumulative majority of votes.
“You might recall that is my real objective and all the voter models say it’s doable, though quite expensive and a heavy lift. Today I got the answer and I think you will really like it,” Turner wrote to the five other candidates, adding that he was advised by the SEEC he could promote all six candidates as long as he kept his name on the promotional pieces, which would mean he could pay for the vast majority of the cost. “However, in doing so, I have to add attribution to the materials for each of the remaining five of us.”
Turner planned and paid for six barbecues at a cost of $53,416 to promote his candidacy. The invitations said BET Democrats were inviting individuals to the events and the disclaimer suggested that each of the candidates had paid for the event.
In his statement this week Turner insisted the SEEC had approved of the campaign’s financial structure and execution. “I followed their advice in every way,” he said.
“I have vigorously fought the allegations and am sickened by the shear lack of accountability proven by the members of our State’s SEEC,” he added.
“But I realize full well that another two-year legal battle and the fees that would cost far exceed the amount of a settlement,” he said, explaining why he agreed to the settlement.
Turner wrote that his fellow Democratic BET colleagues had a responsibility for their own campaign compliance.
This week BET chair Oberlander said she when she learned of the complaint she was shocked that Turner spent so much money on his campaign.
“I am a strong supporter of the SEEC and its regulations,” she said in an email to GFP. “While Tony informed us of some of his activities, he also indicated he was communicating with SEEC to ensure compliance. Tony’s actions went far beyond what he described.”
Republican Ed Dadakis issued a statement saying, “All incumbent Democratic BET members were involved and need to explain their role in breaking the laws of Connecticut.”
Last month when Turner’s campaign treasurer Mr. Miller was fined $15,000, outgoing First Selectman, Republican Peter Tesei claimed Turner’s committee spent money that benefited his opponent Sandy Litvack, who won 47% of the vote.
“The spending benefited other candidates on the ballot and one of them was Sandy Litvack, my opponent,” Tesei claimed on his radio show.
In response, Democratic Selectman Sandy Litvack wrote in an op-ed, “This kind of personal attack coming from the man who refused to investigate the spying on my campaign which took place in Town Hall under his aegis, comes with particular ill grace.
Litvack was referring to the Republican selectmen declining to form a committee to investigate the unauthorized filming with GCTV equipment in town hall, which resulted in photos of Litvack’s wife and former town hall employee Melissa Evans doing campaign work. The photos were revealed when they were Tweeted by Mr. Dadakis.