The State Elections Enforcement Commission in Connecticut fined 16 members of Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration for illegally giving subordinates invitations to a Rell campaign fundraiser.
Thirteen commissioners including Insurance Commissioner Susan Cogswell and three deputy commissioners have each agreed, some reluctantly, to pay a $500 civil penalty for violating an ethics law that bans them from soliciting political contributions.
Some legislative Democrats said they consider the fines a slap on the wrist, and they questioned Chief State’s Attorney Christopher Morano’s decision not to seek criminal charges against the commissioners and Rell’s chief of staff, M. Lisa Moody.
Moody was not fined because the law does not apply to her, which is a loophole the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee is working to close. Moody gave commissioners invitations to the Dec. 7 event at the Marco Polo restaurant in East Hartford, instructing them to hand out the solicitations to certain subordinates.
Rep. Christopher Caruso, D-Bridgeport, co-chairman of the GAE Committee, said at a public hearing that the commissioners should have known they weren’t allowed to seek contributions because they were briefed on ethics and campaign laws in October.
“A commissioner could have said, ‘I don’t want to do this,”‘ he said.
But Morano said his investigation showed he could not prove the commissioners willfully and knowingly broke the law.
Caruso disagreed. “I’m just a poor city boy who reads the law and it seems pretty clear to me,” he said.
Over 100 people attended the fundraiser and were asked to contribute up to $2,500 to the Republican governor’s campaign. All those checks, valued at more than $60,000, were eventually returned, according to the campaign.
Rell, in a written statement, said she is pleased that the commission has concluded its investigation and that members of her administration cooperated fully.
“Questions that were raised were addressed in an open, responsible manner,” Rell said. “Now it is time to focus our efforts and energy on completing the work of this short legislative session.”
Jeffrey Garfield, executive director of the elections commission, said the commission’s unanimous vote marked the first time the solicitation law has been applied since 1983. He said there was a lot of resistance from the commissioners to paying the fines.
“They claim that either they didn’t know or that the commission’s interpretation of the law was faulty,” Garfield said.
While some commissioners admitted wrongdoing, others refused, he said.
Garfield said his office’s investigation did find at least one administration member, Department of Public Works Commissioner James Fleming, who refused to hand out the invitations because he believed it was illegal to do so.
Those who did pass out the invitations include the commissioners of public safety, transportation, economic and community development, environmental protection, revenue services, motor vehicles, public health, mental health, mental retardation, insurance, veterans affairs, administrative services and emergency management.
Last month, Morano announced there would be no criminal prosecutions stemming from the fundraising investigation. He said no criminal statutes currently bar the governor’s chief of staff from campaigning on state property and he said the use of state time was too minimal to warrant a larceny charge. Such a charge would have required an intent to defraud the state.
Rell suspended Moody, a longtime friend, for two weeks in December after Moody acknowledged handing out the invitations.
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