Top 10 of 2017: #8 – Scrutiny of Stewart Alleged Use of Public Funds for Campaign Purposes

Many important stories have been covered by the New Britain Progressive in 2017. It may be difficult to name only a few articles as the top stories of the year, but there are a few the New Britain Progressive would like to share as our Top Ten.  Other Top Ten stories can be found at “Top Ten Stories of 2017.”

The legality of Republican Mayor Erin Stewart’s use of public funds in a way that benefited her campaign came under scrutiny in 2017. An opinion piece carried in the New Britain Progressive, “Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing Of Car Tax Bills?,” broke the news about the question of a possible violation of campaign finance law by Stewart, arising from a self-promoting brochure mailed at taxpayer expense within ninety days of the city elections. After that news broke, the Progressive carried the news that the New Britain Democratic Party filed a complaint against Stewart in this matter, “Complaint Against Stewart Filed Over ‘obvious campaign promotion in car tax bills’.”

The New Britain Progressive also broke news, “Did Stewart’s Use of Main Street USA Advertising Violate Campaign Laws?,” about questions raised of whether Stewart’s use of Main Street USA advertising for self-promotion may have broken the same law at issue with the tax mailing, a law that prohibits incumbents from from using public funds for certain types of self-promoting communication within a certain time period before an election.

These legal questions, together, make up what was the #8 story on the New Britain Progressive’s Top 10 of 2017.

Did Stewart Get A Prohibited Campaign Freebie In Mailing Of Car Tax Bills?

September 2, 2017


By John McNamara
Contributing Columnist

New Britain motor vehicle owners finally got their bills on September 1 along with a glowing missive from Mayor Erin Stewart that makes the case for her re-election.

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s candidacy sent with motor vehicle tax bills this week. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

The city held up auto tax notices this year, blaming the state budget impasse for the two month delay. Uncertain was whether the auto levy would be lowered to 32 mills or stay at 37. Given the state deficit then and now, it would have been a safe bet to go with the 37 mill rate in July rather than wait. The $241.5 million municipal budget for the year that began July 1st is based on what New Britain got from the state in the 2017 fiscal year.

In a city election year the delay in mailing tax bills is giving incumbent Stewart a prohibited taxpayer-funded freebie — an expensive city-wide mailing to everyone who owns a car or truck — to boost her campaign closer to the election.

Don’t expect Stewart and her full-time image team in the Mayor’s office to miss an incumbent’s prerogative of using public funds to deliver a not so subtle piece of campaign promotion. Normally there’d be nothing wrong with it. It’s done here and in many places all the time — an advantage to incumbents in local races with no public financing.

The issue usually arises over “franking privileges” for state and federal lawmakers who send their own positive mailers back to their districts on accomplishments and legislation.

At issue here is whether Stewart used the good offices of the Tax Collector to promote her candidacy within three months of an election. That’s where the Connecticut General Statutes come in. State law prohibits any use of taxpayer money by incumbents within 90 days of an election for self promotion.

From Connecticut general statutes 9-610

(d) (1) No incumbent holding office shall, during the three months preceding an election in which he is a candidate for reelection or election to another office, use public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his election or reelection.

Using her campaign slogan “Leading The Way” in the taxpayer-funded brochure, Stewart cites saving the city from fiscal ruin, good bond ratings, reorganizing city hall departments “to find efficiencies and improve customer service” and “a continuous commitment to provide our teachers and our children with the proper tools for learning and exploring.” The official message is a carbon copy of what can be found on Stewart’s campaign website.

Any and all of the Stewart’s tax mailer assertions, of course, can be challenged in an election year. A closer look at the municipal budget shows higher spending trumps efficiency at City Hall. A hefty jump in interest payments looms on short-term borrowing because Stewart and the Common Council deferred on paying bills coming due last year. And that “continuous commitment” to education? It’s hard to find in a Stewart budget that continues to spend more at City Hall but didn’t add a dime to schools in the current budget.

In politics timing can be everything and can determine what is allowed and what isn’t under the law.

By incorporating her campaign promotion in the late auto tax notices, Mayor Stewart ignored the law that bans incumbents from using public funds “to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials” for reelection.

This column first appeared in NBPoliticus.

Complaint Against Stewart Filed Over “obvious campaign promotion in car tax bills”

September 20, 2017

A formal complaint has been filed against Republican Mayor Erin Stewart with the State Elections Enforcement Commission by Democratic Chair Bill Shortell, according the city Democrats.

Shortell says that he filed the complaint in response to a brochure included in motor vehicle tax bills. The brochure, Democrats say, “included statements promoting Stewart’s candidacy under her campaign slogan ‘Leading the Way’ with information from Stewart’s campaign literature.”

State law prohibits a public official from using “public funds to mail or print flyers or other promotional materials intended to bring about his election or reelection” within three months prior to the election. The tax bills, containing the brochures arrived in taxpayers’ mailboxes in early September, well within the three month period.

Brochure advancing Mayor Stewart’s candidacy sent with motor vehicle tax bills in early September. State law bars use of public funds for candidate promotions within three months of elections.

Shortell says that, “including an obvious campaign promotion in car tax bills within the 90-day prohibition pushes the incumbent advantage too far and is a violation. It crosses the line and creates an unfair advantage. The law expressly prohibits incumbents from doing what the Mayor and Tax Collector did.”

Democrats say that their complaint also cites city Tax Collector Cheryl Blogoslawski, “for sending the brochure with the tax bills.”

The tax mailing would have normally been expected in late June, but it had been delayed by Stewart to within three months of the city elections, Stewart has said, because of the state budget.

Democrats say that Shortell’s complaint was filed last week, on September 13, 2017.

When Stewart was asked for a comment on whether she broke the law in sending the flyer with the tax mailing, her campaign manager, Justin Dorsey, responded, saying, “The allegations lack merit. The campaign will respond and cooperate with the SEEC in full confidence that we operate well within the law. These cheap political stunts to manufacture headlines before the election deter from the fact that Mayor Stewart has a proven record of success for our community.”

Shortell added that, “We have also filed or are in the process of filing complaints about the mayor’s illegal use of City Hall and its resources, including video equipment for her sagging re-election campaign. In addition, we are filing a complaint about a large campaign billboard that has remained on Main Street for three years, with no campaign expenditure cited, an illegal campaign contribution amount to thousands of dollars.”

The issue of the Stewart promotional flyer in car tax bills was made public in a column, by John McNamara, that was published in NBPoliticus and the New Britain Progressive on September 2, 2017.

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

September 10, 2017

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.

Another related article and opinion piece:

Reportedly False Attempt to Bury Article on Stewart Tax Mailing Elections Complaint, September 22, 2017.

Will Erin Stewart Get Another Off The Books Push From An Absentee Landlord in 2017?, October 27, 2017.