This article has been updated to include SEEC finding 2015-192B, an agreement containing a consent order signed by Debra Hess in 2016.
At their clambake on Sunday Republicans were asked by BET member Bill Drake for a show of hands who approved pursuit of a BET sub-committee to investigate five BET Democrats recently fined by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) .
The SEEC investigated and last week fined Jill Oberlander, David Weisbrod, Beth Krumeich, David Weisbrod and Jeff Ramer each $1,000, but said the violations, when they were candidates in 2017, were unintentional.
Republicans got their wish.
At Monday night’s BET meeting, Democrat Tony Turner voted with the six BET Republicans to form the subcommittee. The vote was 7-5.
Back in August Turner was fined $52,000 for campaign finance violations stemming back to 2017 when he was a candidate for BET and violated campaign financing rules by using 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.
Turner agreed to pay the fine to settle the investigation, but vehemently denied wrongdoing. He insisted the SEEC had approved of the campaign’s financial structure and execution. His Treasurer Mark Miller was also fined $15,000.
Before Turner had his say on Monday night, former BET chair Republican Mike Mason read the motion:
“The motion is for the chair to form a BET committee to investigate the CT SEEC complaint and ruling/decisions for the file 2018-008A and 2018-008B, including recent actions and the ongoing investigations. The committee will be formed by the chair of the BET and will meet the minority representation requirements in CT General Statutes section 9-167A. The committee will report back to the full BET at our Oct 24, 2019 meeting. Their report should include findings and any ongoing work by the Connecticut SEEC and recommendations to the BET.” – Mike Mason
The motion was seconded by Republican Bill Drake.
Mr. Mason argued the item had been covered heavily in the media and letters to the editor, and that a subcommittee would offer residents a chance to hear the facts rather than trust the media or social media posts, and to understand the potential impacts to the workings of the BET, and finally to restore public trust in the BET.
When asked by the chair Jill Oberlander, Mr. Mason said he did not have any of the letters to the editor or social media posts. Nor did he have name of their authors.
“I’m trying to keep a straight face that you don’t know who wrote the letters, but it’s of great public importance?” Oberlander asked.
“I know you’re trying to handle the meeting…I don’t think that’s germane,” Mason said. “This is not good for the Town. The Town needs to air this out in a very transparent way.”
Several Democratic BET members weighed in.
Jeff Ramer who has served on the BET for 12 years was critical of the motion.
“This is the lowest motion that I’ve experienced,” he said, adding that the SEEC has the power to compel testimony, issue subpoenas, and punish as appropriate. “The SEEC has jurisdiction and had already compelled testimony and meted out punishment.
“They are all reduced to writing and are on the website in black and white. It has been dealt with and finished,” he said. “The BET has powers granted to it by the charter and nowhere does it have the power to censure another member.”
Ramer said that on the BET, it takes 7 members to constitute a quorum. He said if there were recusals there would be not be quorum and the BET would not have power to act.
“The motion asked for the appointment of a committee with some members who are Republicans and some members who are Democrats. If the Democrats recuse, the ability to grant relief becomes impossible,” he said.
But no one recused themselves.
Further, Ramer said the BET policy and procedure manual says there is such a thing as special project teams, but they only come into existence at the discretion of the chair.
“Most importantly you have to react to the terrible atmosphere you are seeing in this room and think this is not good for the Town. This is political. It is happening in a political year. I regret there are these SEEC complaints… But what we are doing here tonight is worse, and poisons the ability of this body to work as a coherent body and manage the finances of this Town. This motion was a mistake. You have reduced yourself to a very low level that is regrettable.” – Jeff Ramer
Town Attorney Wayne Fox said he’d billed the Town as part of his retainer about 10 hours at $250 an hour for time spent on this matter including phone calls, meetings in his office and emails.
“I try to avoid confrontation,” Mr. Fox added. “I recognize my role, that I do not have a vote, or a right to indicate what you should do. To the extent that we can avoid confrontation and conflict, that makes it easier to do business.”
David Weisbrod described the motion as a stunt.
He said the motion subverted the spirit of trust and cooperation among volunteers and damaged the BET in a way that would be difficult to repair.
“There is a lot of discussion in this Town, and in this country too, about adhering to norms,” he continued. “You give up on norms and you give up on the fabric of democracy.”
Weisbrod quoted the SEEC saying the five Democrats’ error was “an unintentional act.”
Beth Krumeich said, “We were investigated by a state agency and we all took that proceeding seriously. It is one of the most embarrassing and saddening moments in my life. And I apologize because I didn’t carry out the review of the laws that applied and statutes and question them in the moment when an election was going on… It was a mistake, but it was an honest one.”
“We acknowledged there was an unintentional failure to file a form,” she said. “We’ve been penalized by the SEEC, as you know. But I honestly believe this community needs more from us. We need to get back to the business of the BET.”
“I truly believe it is disingenuous of our colleagues to play this out for another few months,” Krumeich added, calling the Republicans’ actions a political game close to an election, and asking them to withdraw their motion.
Oberlander asked Mason what would the committee accomplish in 32 days?
Mason said the committee’s goal was to stop a similar incident from happening again.
“I’m hearing (this is a) political attack, but we didn’t consider it anything but politics when the campaigns were going on – and the picnics, and the money being spent,” he said. “It started political.”
Mason said in addition to reviewing SEEC documents, the subcommittee would look at who was privy to information and conversations about sharing costs before reporting back to the BET with recommendations.
“If you have another complaint, file it with the SEEC,” Mr. Weisbrod said. “To bring it here is so transparent. It’s really beneath you guys. I thought you’d have a little more cleverness.”
Then it was Mr. Turner’s turn and he said he had a very different experience from the other Democrats.
“It’s clear to me that all of the facts are not out yet. The motion, if passed, will get to the bottom of the 2017 campaign,” he said, raising his voice. “People have yet to hear the truth.”
Turner talked about the online regulatory software company he founded 20 years ago, mentioning clients included the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I sold that company two years ago to the largest private equity software company in the world,” he said. “Tony. Knows. Compliance.”
“I proactively contacted and continuously communicated with our State’s senior campaign compliance attorneys,” Turner said. “The SEEC noted that my actions to campaign for majority control were the first of their kind.”
“The financial aspects of the campaign were either known or pre-approved by SEEC, and included suggestions from their communications in writing,” he continued, adding that all the correspondence is evidenced in SEEC’s compliance logging technology, and available to anyone upon request.
“My fellow colleagues have all denied to the SEEC their degree of involvement and their knowledge of campaign spending,” he said. “But I proactively kept them informed.”
Mr. Turner began to read aloud several emails he had sent in 2017 to his then fellow Democratic BET candidates.
As he continued to read aloud, Oberlander interrupted to ask if he planned to read all his emails.
“No,” he replied and continued to read several emails from September and October, 2017
Oberlander interrupted again, ruling Turner out of order, pointing out the emails were already part of the SEEC file.
Mr. Mason said the emails were germane because he had yet to see them.
Bill Drake said, “The scrutiny that’s been applied to the gentleman certainly has earned him the right to say what he wishes in a public forum.”
Mr. Weisbrod warned the BET would have difficulty attracting professionals to volunteer in future. “Go in this fashion to support this farce,” he said.
The BET members voted 7-5, with Turner voting with Republicans against the chair’s motion, and Turner was allowed to continue.
“What a surprise?” Oberlander said.
During the meeting it was pointed out that errors were made in 2015 by Republican Debra Hess, a current member of the BET.
In 2015 she was Treasurer for Barbara O’Neil’s campaign for BOE.
According to an SEEC finding 2015-192A, Hess was responsible for filing financial disclosure statements to deadline but failed to do so.
According to the SEEC finding, Greenwich Town Clerk, Republican Carmella Budkins failed to notify Hess by certified mail that there was a late filing fee:
“As the Committee to Re-Elect Barbara O’Neil was a candidate committee established to support a municipal candidate in a November municipal election, Respondent Hess was obligated to file financial disclosure statements on October 13, 2015 and October 27, 2015…A review of the financial disclosure statements filed with the Greenwich Town Clerk shows, and Respondent Hess admits, that the October 13, 2015, financial disclosure statement and the October 27, 2015 financial disclosure statement were not filed until December 9, 2015.” (emphasis added).
“Pursuant to General Statutes 9-623, the town clerk was obligated to assess a one hundred dollar late filing fee against Respondent Hess for each late filing and was further required to notify the Respondent, by certified mail…Evidence shows that no such letter was ever sent to Respondent Hess.”
“Accordingly, as the Respondent (Hess) never received the required notice letter and has already made the filing, this Count should be dismissed.
…However, the Commission notes that the Greenwich Town Clerk does have a continuing responsibility to collect all outstanding late fees, including those incurred by the Respondent.”
Also, in SEEC finding 2015-192B, an agreement containing a consent order, Hess acknowledged a 2015 mailer produced and distributed by the Committee to Re-Elect Barbara O’Neil for which she was Treasurer, said “Vote for the Team that Puts Greenwich Students First” and had Barbara O’Neil and Lauren Rabin’s names together on one side, in a small portion of the mailer. SEEC investigation revealed that there was no evidence candidate Rabin or her campaign were aware the mailer was being produced or distributed, or that her name would be included on it.
A candidate committee may only make expenditures promoting the candidate for which the candidate committee was established. SEEC determined the Respondent, Hess, violated General Statutes 6-907. The commission elected not to pursue a civil penalty, noting the Respondent was “responsive and forthright in the investigation,” had shown good faith in attempting to comply, and the reference to the other candidate was not a major feature of the mailer. The consent order was signed by Hess in July 2016.
There was a motion to expand the investigation to include prior SEEC actions against other members of the BET, various conflicts of interest, and ethical violations, but it was defeated 7-5 with Turner again joining the Republicans.
Lastly was a 7-5 vote in favor of creating the subcommittee to investigate the Democrats.
The timeline is for the work to be completed is 32 days.
It was not determined who would comprise the special committee.
“I will be taking up this issue with Town counsel and possibly outside counsel,” Oberlander said on WGCH Tuesday morning.
Oberlander said she questioned why the Republicans had not simply submitted FOIA requests for the correspondence, and why they waited until so close to the Nov 5 election to seek a subcommittee to investigate what had already been investigated exhaustively by the SEEC.
“Our Town attorney has already spent $2,500,” she said.
“From my point of view as BET chair, this is a partisan political position, but I’m interested in full open disclosure and transparency. These materials are open to the public. They could have made FOIA requests for all these materials from the SEEC, but they wanted to go down this route and spend taxpayer money in this way.”