Did Stewart’s Use of Main Street USA Advertising Violate Campaign Laws?

Questions have arisen about the legality of Republican Mayor Erin Stewart using the recent Main Street USA event for political self-promotion. A state law prohibits a candidate for public office from using public funds to promote themselves on, among other things, newspaper ads and billboards, within a year of an election.

The questions about whether Stewart may have misused advertising for the decades old community celebration, recently revived during her administration, to promote her campaign for re-election, fall in a backdrop of questions about the legality of a taxpayer-funded flyer promoting Stewart less than three months from an election. That flyer was mailed with city car tax bills, which Stewart says were delayed to within three months of the city elections because of the state budget. City Democrats are reportedly preparing to file an elections complaint about the flyer.

The questions about Stewart’s use of Main Street USA advertising relate to the same law, which prohibits the use of public funds, by elected officials, to promote themselves, using certain, prohibited types of communication, within a certain time prior to the election. In this case, the passage of state law that is in question says,

(2) No official or employee of the state or a political subdivision of the state shall authorize the use of public funds for a television, radio, movie theater, billboard, bus poster, newspaper or magazine promotional campaign or advertisement, which (A) features the name, face or voice of a candidate for public office, or (B) promotes the nomination or election of a candidate for public office, during the twelve-month period preceding the election being held for the office which the candidate described in this subdivision is seeking.

A billboard on Rt. 84, just outside of New Britain, on Sept. 2, 2017

Advertisement on the front page of the New Britain City Journal, August 17, 2017.

Newspaper advertisements, at least one billboard and signs have been seen widely around the City, promoting the event, prominently displaying the words, “Mayor Erin E. Stewart Presents”. A newspaper advertisement or billboard, paid for by public funds, that “features the name … of a candidate for public office” is expressly prohibited during an entire year prior to an election.

Main Street USA is apparently run by the City of New Britain. The city solicited sponsorships to support Main Street USA. But even private contributions given to the city appear to be “public funds”, defined in state law as, “funds belonging to, or under the control of, the state or a political subdivision of the state”.

And, if these sponsorships paid for the advertising for Main Street USA, promoting Stewart, it raises further questions, especially since it appears that a charitable fund that appears to be under the control of Timothy or Erin Stewart was one of those sponsors.

From the advertisement in the City Journal, August 17, 2017.

At certain levels of sponsorship for the event, according to a sponsorship solicitation flyer from the city, sponsors were to receive, among other things, their, “Name in newspaper advertisements.” One of the sponsors appearing in such advertising is the “Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Fund”.

An article posted on the New Britain school system’s website says that the Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Fund, “maintained at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, was started by Mayor Timothy Stewart in 2011 for charitable purposes. He began an annual Mayor’s Trophy Golf Tournament to raise money for the fund, which Mayor [Erin] Stewart has continued.” In the description for a July 25, 2016 YouTube video Erin Stewart said, “The Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Fund was started in 2007 by Timothy Stewart and revitalized in 2014 by Mayor Erin Stewart…”, also noting, “To participate in 2016 tournament, taking place on Sept. 23 at Stanley Quarter Golf Course, contact 860-826-3303.” That is the phone number for Mayor’s official office in City Hall. In the July 25, 2016 comments, Stewart said that, “The funds are never used to support political ends.”  On a September 27, 2016 Facebook post, Erin Stewart touted her involvement in the fundraising of the “2016 Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Golf Tournament”. Also Stewart’s campaign website refers to the fund as, “her Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Fund”.

The Community Foundation of Greater New Britain’s website refers to a, “Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Fund,” as one of the funds that it maintains. Its website says that the Mayor’s Trophy Charitable Fund is “Donor advised.” The Foundation’s website also says that,

Donor advised funds are established by donors who wish to actively participate in the grantmaking process. Individuals who establish a donor advised fund recommend charitable projects or organizations they want to support.

This may raise further questions about whether money solicited for charitable purposes made their way into political self-promotion of Stewart’s candidacy.