Letter: First Selectman on Ethics Board Report


Last week, after nearly 12 hours of meetings in 9 sessions from November 9, 2021, to May 12, 2022, the Ethics Board of the Town of New Canaan voted 4 to 1 to issue a Report and Determination on a Complaint filed against me last November 1st by Ms. Micaela Porta. 

Ms. Porta was then President of the League of Women Voters of New Canaan but she was also known to be active in Democratic politics and progressive causes. Ms. Porta has admitted that she was approached by Democratic party operatives about the Letter and Ms. Porta herself enlisted the support of two prominent leaders of the Democratic Party (current Selectman Kathleen Corbett and former Selectman Beth Jones) in making the argument that there was something wrong with the Letter in regard to how I described CT minority representation law as it applied to the 2021 municipal election ballot. Accordingly, I believe that the Complaint was politically motivated and that the Ethics Board was weaponized for political purposes. 

The Complaint involved a single campaign endorsement letter (the “Letter”) that I wrote last October at the request of the Republican Town Committee (“RTC”) recommending the Republican slate of candidates to new voters, including the Republican slate of four Board of Education candidates. As First Selectman, I was a candidate for re-election, and, as such, I had a duty to communicate my views to the New Canaan electorate.  It is also my right pursuant to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to do so.

In her Complaint, Ms. Porta alleged that I violated several sections of the Ethics Code claiming:

 First, that I “used [my] position and access to resident names and addresses to give preferential treatment to one slate of candidates,” and

Second, that the Letter was “misleading to voters,” “erroneous” in its description of Connecticut election law and that Town citizens were “confused” by it.

The Ethics Board correctly concluded that there was no basis for finding that the Letter violated any provision of the Ethics Code.  The voter list is freely available at the Registrars’ Office to individuals who ask for it and my Letter was typical of campaign endorsement letters commonly seen during election season.

While I am pleased with the ultimate decision of the Ethics Board, I am troubled by many aspects of the handling of this matter, and particularly by several actions of Chairman Thomas F. Clauss Jr., who is a retired attorney and who should have been more aware of the consequences of his actions.

First, Chairman Clauss should have recused himself from this matter at the outset due to bias, or at least the appearance of bias. Before the November 2nd election, Chairman Clauss wrote a caustic Letter to the Editor published in the New Canaan Advertiser attacking all four Republican candidates for the Board of Education, stating that “nothing in their credentials or experience would suggest to me that they would make a positive contribution to Board service” and accusing them and their supporters of “stoking fear” with “xenophobic and divisive messages” and of slinging mud, cowardice and racism.  I disagree with Chairman Clauss’ opinions, but he is entitled to them. However, considering his fevered passions concerning the Board of Education election I believe that in order to avoid bias, and the appearance of bias, he should have recused himself from participating in judging the merits of the Complaint. It is wholly inappropriate for a member of the Ethics Board to be publicly advocating for one side in an election and then sit in judgment regarding the actions of the side he opposed in that election.

Second, Chairman Clauss failed to obtain independent legal advice for the Board about the Complaint. He unilaterally decided not to consult Town Attorney Ira Bloom because he concluded that the Town Attorney was conflicted. He refused to hire alternative counsel as he was authorized to do under the Town Code.  Although he is a retired attorney, Chairman Clauss had no right to lawyer the case himself and, by doing so, he improperly influenced the non-attorney members of the Board.  This should never be allowed to happen again in an Ethics case against a New Canaan elected official, or any Town official.

Third, Chairman Clauss did not conduct a fair confidential investigation of the Complaint prior to the Board finding probable cause to investigate further. In my interview with Chairman Clauss I explained that the RTC was responsible for compiling the new voter mailing list, yet Chairman Clauss did not reach out to the RTC to confirm that they had simply obtained publicly available information from the Registrars’ Office. Moreover, by not contacting the RTC the Board did not learn that the Letter had been mailed in an envelope with an RTC return address further indicating that the Letter was a typical campaign endorsement letter and not an official communication from the First Selectman. At the Board’s March 27th meeting two Board members commented that probable cause might not have been found if the RTC envelope had been seen by the Board in January. Chairman Clauss said at the February 8th meeting that he did not contact the RTC because he was concerned that the RTC would not maintain confidentiality of the investigation. 

Fourth, Chairman Clauss led the Board in an improper exercise to investigate issues that were not even raised in the Complaint.  The Ethics Code is intended to cover conflicts of interest by Town officials in their governmental actions. It has only two provisions regarding political activities neither of which are relevant here. The Town Charter expressly prohibits the Ethics Board from acting on issues outside the claims of a specific Complaint. Sec. 17-3F states: “The Ethics Board shall have no authority to present matters for inquiry or investigation on its own initiative.” Through very tortured reasoning, Chairman Clauss allowed himself and the Board to try to expand the scope of their investigation into campaign matters that were clearly beyond their jurisdiction and not raised in the Complaint.  The “guidance” that the Report purports to give to New Canaan officials for the future is inarticulate, confused and simply wrong. It also is clearly beyond the powers of the Board to expand the scope of the Ethics Code.

In concluding I would reiterate that the Ethics Board exists to investigate complaints made against town officials for actions in their official capacity. It is not the appropriate venue for issues regarding political campaigns. Those issues are the domain of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, but even that Commission does not venture into regulating the content of campaign literature such as my October 2021 endorsement Letter.

Filing an Ethics Complaint against any elected official is a serious matter and should not have been undertaken or supported lightly. Processing a Complaint by the Ethics Board required fairness and due process and deserved the advice of legal counsel expert in ethics law as well CT election law. This did not occur in Chairman Clauss’ handling of the Complaint against me. I am hopeful that in the future, the Ethics Board will heed this and not stray from their clearly defined powers in the Town Charter.

8 thoughts on “Letter: First Selectman on Ethics Board Report

  1. Mr. Moynihan is right: “The Ethics Board exists to investigate complaints made against town officials for actions in their official capacity.” That’s what happened here. Some of us are able to differentiate between the personal and the professional. For those who can’t, we now have clearer guidelines. For those who value ethical behavior, the system worked.

    • What a waste of time and resources of the town. Where are these ” clearer guidelines” that you refer to and who in an official town capacity approved them ? Shouldn’t the general public have a say in whatever political guidelines you asking our town leaders to operate under?

  2. If the First Selectman had simply acknowledged that his endorsement letter — perhaps unintentionally — created the wrong appearance, this matter would have been behind him last November. Any reputational harm he might have suffered from these events has been self-inflicted. But I am glad to see Mr. Moynihan back on his feet, and I wish him good health.

    • Let’s be honest. If First Selectman Moynihan had endorsed the democrat party candidates in his letter an ethics complaint would not have been filed.

      • Eventually, those who deride “good government” and view the world through a partisan lens will get the poorly run government they expect.

  3. When and where does the Ethics Board meet? And, are their meetings open to New Canaan residents? Something’s really off here. The Ethics Board was apparently completely fine with the outrageous smears, via social media, from the Democrat Town Committee against the extraordinary (and hugely popular) Republican Board of Education candidates. Those good men and women were bombarded with non-stop, baseless attacks. Where was the Ethics Board in all of that?

  4. So, it appears that after months of “investigation” and thousands of dollars personally spent by Mr. Moynihan to defend these allegations, the complaint had little merit or substance. It is disappointing that members of the ethics board would pursue these allegations when it appears some could have been proven false with 30 minutes of due diligence. Although I sometimes disagree with the First Selectman’s positions, I think he handled himself with integrity and professionalism through this process. I also respect the fact that he defended himself against these accusations instead of simply admitting to impropriety he believed did not exist. Apparently, he believes that a person’s reputation is worth fighting for and I wholeheartedly agree.

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