NewCanaanite.com recently received the following letter(s) to the editor. Please send letters to email@example.com for publication here.
Last Friday evening, the New Canaan Chamber Music, under the leadership of Andrew Armstrong, gave a four-part concert performance, that it would have brought a Carnegie Hall audience to its feet, as it did to all present at Grace Farms.
Hearing such beautiful music was one thing, but to be able to witness this extraordinarily complex music being played, with such incredible dexterity and virtuosity, so close-up, was astounding, and absolutely riveting.
We are most fortunate to have these very high-quality concerts occurring right here in our midst, and there are more to come.
On May 13, the Ethics Board of the Town of New Canaan issued a Report and Determination, finding that our First Selectman, Kevin Moynihan, did not violate the Town’s Ethics Code in writing a letter to new voters endorsing the Republican Board of Education (BoE) candidates and explaining the ballot for that race. The Ethics Board also found that Mr. Moynihan did not use Town resources to obtain the mailing list. While we applaud the Ethics Board’s decision to clear the First Selectman of these specious allegations, it is worth considering how we got here and if this is really the way the Ethics Code and Ethics Board were intended to work.
Micaela Porta filed the Complaint with the Ethics Board in November 2021, with support from Kathleen Corbet and Beth Jones, claiming that (1) Mr. Moynihan used his position to access voter information for sending the Republican Town Committee (RTC) campaign letter to new voters in which he endorsed the Republican BoE slate, and (2) his letter erroneously explained Connecticut’s Minority Representation rules in an effort to inappropriately influence the outcome of the BoE election.
These claims were baseless and without merit and the Ethics Board properly rejected them. The RTC, not Mr. Moynihan, compiled the mailing list using publicly available information provided by the Town’s Registrar of Voters. Voter lists are, in fact, available to anyone who requests the information in writing, and the Ethics Board verified that the information was obtained by the RTC. This is a widely known means of gathering voter information for campaign mailers utilized by both the Republicans and Democrats. Ms. Porta, as the head of New Canaan’s League of Women Voters, and Ms. Corbet and Ms. Jones, as current and former Selectmen, respectively, and active members of the New Canaan’s Democratic Town Committee (DTC) for many years, are doubtlessly well aware of the process and could have quickly verified this information with the Registrars of Voters. Accusing Mr. Moynihan of using his position to access information that Ms. Porta, Ms. Corbet and Ms. Jones knew to be publicly available is not only perplexing but could cause one to question their motivations.
In the run up to the November 2021 election, many voters asked Town officials of both parties, including Mr. Moynihan, “Why are the Republicans only running four Board of Education candidates when the Democrats are running six?” Without a detailed understanding of Connecticut’s Minority Representation rules, the answer is not obvious. These rules prohibit the members of any single political party from having more than two-thirds of the seats on the BoE. The BoE has nine members; thus, Republicans were limited to a maximum of six seats. Since the Republicans had two sitting BoE members who were not up for re-election, there were only four seats available for new Republican BoE members. The RTC decided to only run as many Republican BoE candidates as there were seats legally available. The reasoning behind the parties running different numbers of candidates is confusing so both parties used campaign materials and events to explain how the ballots worked. There was nothing untrue or misleading in Mr. Moynihan’s letter to new voters. Accordingly, all of the claims made in Ms. Porta’s Complaint were dismissed by the Ethics Board.
In her recent Letter to the Editor published in the New Canaanite, Ms. Porta shifted away from her two specific allegations about the use of Town resources and explanation of the complicated Minority Representation rules – the core of her written Complaint to the Ethics Board. Instead, she noted that her “main concern” was the letter’s appearance and contents, a concern that she purportedly conveyed verbally in her private interview with the Ethics Board rather than in the written Complaint. Her specific criticism of the letter’s appearance and contents is best summed up in Ms. Porta’s own words from her Letter to the Editor:
“This letter, however, looked and felt different, ‘off’ in a way that was difficult to articulate, and admittedly, to pin down in code or law. Yes, the letter listed the RTC’s Treasurer in tiny type at the bottom, if you read that far and bothered to read the fine print. Of course, elected officials may use their titles when they endorse candidates. Lawyers could endlessly argue that this piece of correspondence followed the letter of the law, and maybe they’re right. What I do know is that I was not alone among people of both parties in feeling that it undermined the spirit of the law.”
Which law did it “undermine the spirit of”? Certainly not New Canaan’s Ethics Code since the Ethics Code does not (and cannot) cover political campaigns or elections.
It is worth noting that the mailer envelope, which was boldly marked with “New Canaan Republican Town Committee” as the sender, was conspicuously left out of the materials submitted with the Complaint. Some members of the Ethics Board stated during a recent public meeting that had the envelope been included with the Complaint, the Complaint may have been dismissed before it was made public. At a minimum, it would have led to further discussion on the merits of even proceeding with a public investigation.
The more important question for the people of New Canaan to consider is: “Are these the types of complaints that should be taken up by our Town’s Ethics Board?” The clear answer is “Absolutely not”.
The allegation that the First Selectman used his office inappropriately to access voter information was provably false with minimal investigation. It seems odd that the Ethics Board did not perform at least a cursory investigation before publicly disclosing the Complaint and needlessly tarnishing reputation of a dedicated public servant.
The second part of the Complaint regarding the letter’s content is a matter of election law and should not have been taken up by the Ethics Board at all. The appropriate forum for making this claim is the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC). Ms. Porta, Ms. Corbet and Ms. Jones likely knew the claim would not have been given credence by the SEEC. So instead, they chose to pursue Mr. Moynihan in his hometown for maximum effect.
We hope lessons have been learned by the Ethics Board which will prevent the Ethics Complaint process from being misused for partisan purposes. In the future, we would suggest that the Ethics Board consider three questions before making public a complaint involving an elected official, regardless of their views of the complainant(s):
- Is the alleged conduct covered by the Ethics Code and, thus, appropriately before the Ethics Board?
- Is the complaint credible on its face and supported by evidence?
- Have we, the Ethics Board, conducted an appropriate inquiry into the facts before publicizing the claim and publicly accusing someone of unethical conduct?
Had they done so in this case, we are confident that the Ethics Board would have saved the First Selectman and the Town time and money and spared Mr. Moynihan from having his character unduly and pointlessly called into question. Even more importantly, it would have shown the Town’s Ethics Board is what it should be – an independent arbiter of ethical conduct in Town government.
We can and should expect better from everyone involved.
Submitted on behalf of the New Canaan Republican Town Committee
Christopher Wilson, Chairman
Jonathan Cheng, Vice-Chairman
This is a clever but misguided attempt to reframe the Ethics Board’s actual decision, which is far different. The Board found that “an appearance of impropriety was caused” by the use of letterhead implying the First Selectman was communicating in his official position — an asset that is “held in trust for Town citizens.” The Board further found that the Ethics Code “can — and perhaps should — be read to prohibit the [First Selectman’s] use of the letterhead,” as “either a misuse of Town property or a misuse of a Town position.” But because there was no “established, clear standard” on the point, the Board chose to follow the practice of other ethics commissions in such circumstances: to “pronounce the conduct suspect and issue guidance that, should similar conduct come before it again, it might be considered a violation.” The Board’s complete decision is available in its entirety on the Town of New Canaan website.
I am not sure how the letter is “clever” or misguided. It provides a history and context to the complaint and “investigation”. Mr. Clarke’s comment fails to acknowledge the two initial complaints by Ms. Porta, which after minimal due diligence, appeared to be baseless. The comment also fails to acknowledge that even Ms. Porta’s “reframing/redirecting” of the complaint proved to have questionable basis.
Instead, Mr. Clarke attempts to focus on the ethics boards “findings” which appeared to be an attempt to legitimize the complaint and investigation. Could the ethics board have dropped the complaint or simply issued a statement that no impropriety existed? Yes, but then it would have to concede the facts behind the complaint.
The RTC’s letter asserts that the Ethics Board found the First Selectman “did not violate the Ethics Code” in writing his endorsement letter, when the Board actually held that he probably did. That might be clever politics, but it isn’t accurate (charitably, one might describe the assertion to be “misguided”).
I stand by the RTC’s letter but, given John’s comments, it is worth being more specific in regard to the Ethics Board’s conclusions.
The Ethics Board dismissed the 2 allegations specifically mentioned in Ms. Porta’s Ethics Complaint. I will note that neither John or Micaela (in her Letter to the Editor) defend those allegations as accurate or meritorious.
On the “use of letterhead” which the Ethics Board spent many pages in their Report laboriously justifying as a point for their consideration, the Ethics Board acknowledged that the heading used in the Letter was not actually “letterhead”, but they thought that it could be mistaken for town letterhead by “new residents or new voters who would likely have had little experience with Town officials, Town politics or official town letterhead or correspondence.” Even with their new subjective standard as to what constitutes “town letterhead”, the Board concluded that “[it] is hesitant to find a violation absent an established, clear standard and accordingly does not find formal violations of Sections 17-2 B(6) or 17-2 B(8).”
As First Selectman Kevin Moynihan noted in his statement on the decision, “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.”