Hours after New Canaan’s highest elected official publicly denied her request for a meeting date change, Selectman Kathleen Corbet contacted the chair of the Ethics Board suggesting that the denial might have been retaliatory, documents show.
An ethics complaint already had been filed against First Selectman Kevin Moynihan at the time of the Board of Selectmen’s Nov. 16 meeting. There, Moynihan said honoring Corbet’s request to move a scheduled meeting in December back one day would “be a very bad precedent.”
According to an email that Moynihan sent to the selectmen about 45 minutes prior to the meeting—an email that forms part of an ethics investigation file available at Town Hall—the first selectman said Corbet’s request “may be an Ethics Code violation.”
“We know when our Regular meetings of BOS are well in advance and we should act accordingly,” Moynihan said in the meeting. “Sometimes you may have to miss a meeting if you have personal business that is more important that the Town’s.”
Corbet made Moyhinan’s denial public during the selectmen meeting, and then emailed Ethics Board Chair Tucker Clauss just after, saying, “Not sure if this is retaliatory … I requested a date change over 30 days away from this meeting which would keep it as a Regular meeting. There is no personal financial gain by having to attend a corporate board meeting over a Board of Selectman meeting.”
Clauss replied, “Thanks for forwarding. Obviously cannot comment on substance one way or t’other.”
The emails offer a glimpse into what had been happening behind the scenes around the time that the Nov. 1 ethics complaint had been filed against Moynihan, and before the the Ethics Board itself resolved that further investigation in the matter was warranted—a finding that the first selectman, who wanted the complaint dismissed outright, has called a “perversion and politicization.”
Received Jan. 11 in the Town Clerk’s office, the 160-page ethics investigation file includes emails as well as multiple versions of the Republican Town Committee-distributed endorsement letter written by Moynihan that is at the center of Micaela Porta’s complaint, lodged the day before November’s municipal election.
Viewable here on the town website, the complaint alleges that Moynihan violated the town Code of Ethics in multiple ways when he described the Board of Education race to letter recipients while urging them to vote for the Republican slate.
The file also includes reference materials such federal case law, state statute language and opinion pieces regarding freedom of speech, the State Elections Enforcement Commission’s “Guide for Municipal Candidates” and various other correspondence related to the complaint, including screenshots from the New Canaan Moms Facebook group and these text messages from a local elector (recipient undisclosed): “Just got a robocall from Kevin Moynihan saying vote row b and only row b” and “It seems sticky if he used the town list to make robocalls for Row B.”
The ethics investigation file includes correspondence that sheds light on a flurry of activity during the final week of October among Moynihan, Republican Town Committee members and other GOPers, culminating with the town-wide distribution of his endorsement letter.
One major function of the RTC, like its counterpart Democratic committee in town, is to put forward party members’ names for appointment to municipal boards and commissions. The RTC puts advertising dollars behind candidates for elected office, and throws its support behind specific candidates when there’s a contested race within the party for the Republican nomination at the party’s July Caucus. Current RTC members include Cristina A. Ross, Maria Weingarten and Jan Schaefer, according to the organization’s website. (Republican electors do not necessarily back the RTC’s favored candidates—for example, in 2011, Rob Mallozzi earned the backing of the GOP over Paul Giusti in the first selectman race, going on that fall to become a popular three-term incumbent.)
Moynihan refers to the letter in an Oct. 23 letter to the chair of the RTC< Patrick Donovan, Ross and Weingarten: “See attached draft letter. Please comment or suggest corrections. If we finalize the letter tomorrow I can get volunteers to stuff and stamp envelopes tomorrow. We should include the BOE candidates slim Jim with the mailing.”
Others copied in on the correspondence as the letter underwent multiple drafts including Penny Young and RTC members Pavla Levin and John Kriz.
Though issued under the name of New Canaan’s highest elected official, the letter itself (full text below) underwent multiple additions and deletions with input from non-elected people. For example, Weingarten on Oct. 25 appears to change this sentence:
”The Republican BOE candidates all have young children in our schools and are accomplished individuals who stand for academic excellence, fiscal common sense, local control, better curriculum and new initiative and improved communication to all parents.”
“The Republican BOE candidates all have young children in our schools and are accomplished individuals who stand for academic excellence, fiscal common sense, local control, better curriculum oversight, greater transparency, especially on new initiatives and improved communication to all parents.”
Later that same day, Moynihan appears to use a town scanner while preparing to send out the draft letter again. A document in the ethics investigation correspondence tracks an email that says, “Selectmen Copier mailto: email@example.com” sent to Kevin Moynihan at his town email account. Moynihan then forwards the scanned draft letter to Donovan, Weingarten, Young and Levin, the correspondence shows. It appears to have been sent out very shortly after, according to the investigation file.
Corbet includes a copy of the endorsement letter in an Oct. 28 email to Town Attorney Ira Bloom. The email said, “I am writing to bring your attention to a letter (attached) from the First Selectman that was recently sent supposedly to newcomers in New Canaan. I find the public statement that Democrats are ‘guaranteed a minimum of two sears under CT state law’ to be, in my view, a misleading statement. The Democrats are not ‘guaranteed’ anything – as seats are open to Democrats, Unaffiliated, Independent and Green Party candidates – and yes, even Republicans, so long as one party does not hold more than six of the nine seats on the Board of Education. The fact that there are ‘only three Republican candidates for the 5 seats’ is attributed to the purported ‘guarantee’ is also incorrect as the Republican Party could have put up more candidates than they chose but not all would have been seated even if they were the top vote getters due to the majority rule limitations. As you well know, CGS [Connecticut General Statute] 9-167 limits the maximum number of members who may belong to the same political party on boards, commissions, legislative bodies, whether elected or appointed. In case of an elective body – like the BOE – once candidates fro the same party fill the maximum allowable slots, the highest vote getters from any other party or parties, or independents, fill the remaining positions. The law does not guarantee a minor party representation on the board, however, and the number of parties that candidates represent during an election does not change the requirement. Question: Is it appropriate/lawful for a public official to make a public state – that is – in my view – incorrect and that is intended to sway voting in a particular way? I appreciate your thoughts on this matter.”
Bloom appears not to have responded via email to Corbet, though she makes reference in a later email to receiving a phone call from the town attorney in response.
The concerns Corbet raised in the email are similar to those made in the formal complaint that Porta lodged Nov. 1 with the Ethics Board.
Yet the details of the complaint would not be disclosed publicly until this month, when the Ethics Board drafted a resolution saying that further investigation is warranted.
During the weeks between its filing and disclosure of its substance, tensions between Corbet and Moynihan were at work in emails and also played out at public meetings.
On Nov. 22, Corbet again requests a change in the date of the Dec. 14 selectmen meeting to the prior day, saying in part in an email to Moynihan and Selectman Nick Williams, “As you know, I take my responsibility as a Selectman with a serious commitment to all constituents. Since August 2020, I have never missed a BOS Regular or Special meeting and during my term as a member of the Board of Finance and Town Council, I have missed perhaps 4 meetings in eight years which included my recovery from an accident. I am a full time professional and manage my time with care and expedience for all those I serve in civic, non-profit and corporate organizations. On behalf of all those we serve in our community, your kind consideration of my request is gratefully appreciated.”
Moynihan responds about one hour later, saying in an email, “Kathleen, Courtesy is a two way street. I think you know what I mean. I will talk to Nick. I personally think that a BOS regular meeting should never be rescheduled unless we would not have a quorum, meaning 2 members have a conflict. The idea that we can’t have a two member meeting is unacceptable.”
About 30 minutes after that, Corbet forwards the thread to Clauss with a message saying, “Another form of retaliation?”
Clauss responds, “Thanks for forwarding. As I mentioned previously, I cannot comment on the substance.”
What appear now to be references to Moynihan’s denial of Corbet’s requests from November cropped up at future meetings, and even carried over into the new year. For example, Corbet during a Jan. 3 special meeting of the selectmen said, “I’m just curious, I don’t know—what was the purpose for the date change that we have a special meeting today versus tomorrow?”
Moynihan responded, “I’m scheduled to leave tomorrow [Jan. 4]. Like you, I’m going to be on vacation.”
Moynihan has until Feb. 11 to file response, and may request an extension to that deadline, according to the Ethics Board. Three sections of section 17-2 of the Code of Ethics “Standards of conduct” section are at issue—namely, 17-2b(5)(c), 17-2b(6) and 17-2b(8). They say:
- “No official or employee shall, in the discharge of his or her duties, grant (i) preferential treatment to any person or entity beyond that which is available to all other persons or entities, or (ii) any favor, service or thing of value except when such favors, services or things of value are made available to the general public.”
- “Use of Town property. No official or employee shall use, or permit the use of, Town property of any nature, including vehicles, equipment, resources, supplies or real property, for the benefit of himself or herself, except when such (i) is provided as municipal policy for the use of such official or employee in furtherance of the official’s or employee’s conduct of official business, or (ii) is made available to the general public and then on terms and conditions not more favorable than those available to the general public.”
- “Use of Town position. No official or employee shall use his or her position, or knowledge acquired through that position which is not available to the general public, for the purpose of obtaining or furthering a financial interest or a personal interest.”
- The Ethics Board ultimately “finds probable cause under section 17-2b(5)(c) of the Code to conduct further proceedings to determine whether the letter violates” the sections cited above.
Though the Ethics Board in its resolution identifies Porta as “president of the New Canaan chapter of the League of Women Voters,” Porta herself only refers to the nonprofit organization by way of saying in the complaint that “numerous concerned citizens reached out to me” in that capacity.
In fact it was Moynihan in a Dec. 6 response to the complaint, denying its allegations, who connects Porta’s role as League president to the filing of the complaint.
“Ms. Porta’s complaint attempts to politicize the Ethics Board process and misuse the Code to cast aspersions on my character and my integrity and to chill my right of free speech guaranteed by Article I of the U.S. Constitution,” Moynihan said in the letter. “Ms. Porta alleges that her capacity as President of the new Canaan League of Women Voters somehow gives her authority to complain about the propriety of my endorsement letter, but Ms. Porta is well known to have extreme anti-Republican opinions as a supporter of the 203Action political agenda in New Canaan. Further, that Ms. Porta’s complaint names as witnesses Selectman Kathleen Corbet and Selectman Beth Jones, who are two leading Democrats in New Canaan, further evidences Ms. Porta’s attempt to politicize the Ethics Board process.”
The reference to the League prompted Porta to make an explanation in the same week that the Ethics Board disclosed its investigation, saying in an email to fellow members that she’d filed the complaint as a private citizen and not in her role as the organization’s president, as inferred by Moynihan.
Yet at least some members of the League who support Moynihan appear to have taken Porta to task.
League member Tucker Murphy responds to Porta in the organization’s email thread, obtained by NewCanaanite.com: “Thank you for your thoughtful response to a very unfortunate and avoidable event. I do appreciate you taking the time to explain the distinction between your personal decision and your role as President of the League. I would only add that perhaps the LWV Board members hold off on offering their opinions at this time because it is in the hands of the Ethics Board who I believe will ultimately make the right decision.”
Here’s the full text of letter in question, including words in bold or uppercase:
“Kevin J. Moynihan
Town of New Canaan
Dear New Resident,
As a newcomer to New Canaan, you may not be familiar with the upcoming municipal election on Tuesday, November 2, and you may be confused by the ballot. I am writing to help explain the process for voting.
I am proud to be leading the Republican slate of candidates on the November 2 ballot, or ‘Row B.’ In addition to our unopposed incumbents in the offices of First Selectman, Selectmen, Town Treasurer, Town Clerk, Town Council and others, we have a very important contest for the Board of Education this election cycle.
This year, 5 of the 9 BOE seats with 4-year terms are up for election and there is also a special election for a BOE vacancy with a remaining 2 years of a 4-year term. Because Democrats, as the minority party in New Canaan, are guaranteed a minimum of 2 sears under CT law, there are only 3 Republican candidates for the 5 seats with 4-year terms versus 5 Democrat candidates.
I urge you to vote ONLY for the ‘Row B’ Republican candidates: Julie Toal, Phil Hogan, and Dan Bennett for 4-year terms, and Hugo Alves for the special election seat. The remaining two seats can be determined by voters under guaranteed minority party representation.
The Republican BOE candidates all have young children in our schools and are accomplished individuals who stand for academic excellence, fiscal common sense, local control, better curriculum oversight, especially on new initiatives and improved communication to all parents.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there is ‘no excuse’ absentee ballot voting under rules adopted by the CT legislature last summer. If you will be unable to or prefer not to vote in person on November 2nd you may go to Town Hall, 77 Main Street, any weekday before 8:00AM and 4:00PM and vote by absentee ballot at the Town Clerk’s office.
REMEMBER: VOTE ROW B – ONLY!
Paid for by the New Canaan RTC, Gene Goodman Treasurer”