By: Cris DeBlaise
When seeking reelection in 2014, Connecticut incumbent Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy was neck-and-neck in one of the closest gubernatorial races in the country. In a last-minute attempt to garner more support, Malloy and his team spent over $250,000 to send out a pro-Malloy mass mailing in the weeks leading up the election. Though the effort itself does not sound controversial, the way the election mailer was financed set off alarm bells at the state—and now federal—levels.
In October 2014, before the election even happened, the state Republican Party alleged that the state Democratic Party had been illegally using federal campaign contributions to support Governor Malloy, even after asking the Federal Elections Commission for an advisory opinion on this point. This complaint began a year-and-a-half-long court battle, which eventually was settled in June of this year. To settle the complaint, and more importantly, to avoid turning over emails and documents related to the case, Connecticut Democrats offered a “voluntary payment” of $325,000 to the State Elections Enforcement Commission over the next two years. Nearly a month after that announced settlement, the Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office launched a federal investigation, assembling a grand jury looking into whether Malloy used contributions from the state Democratic Party’s federal account to pay for the infamous 2014 mailer. The grand jury is ongoing, but the FBI has subpoenaed several staffers associated with the state Democratic Party’s 2014 campaign effort so far.
The central issue raised in each of these investigations is essentially the conflict between state and federal campaign finance law. Part of Connecticut’s clean-elections statute forbids state contractors to contribute to campaigns for state offices, like governor. When Malloy received a state grant of $6.5 million in public financing for the 2014 election, he signed an affidavit promising to abide by this ban. However, federal law permits the acceptance of such contributions from state contractors—but these contributions are only supposed to be used on behalf of candidates for federal office. What makes this issue more unclear is the question of whether Malloy properly used the federal account for this mailer. According to the state Democrats, the mailer’s small print about the polls qualified it as “get-out-the-vote” material for a federal campaign, which is another permitted use of the federal account. That argument assumed Malloy supporters would likely also vote for a Democratic congressional candidate once at the polls. However, Republicans asserted that because no congressional candidates’ names were mentioned on the mailers, there was no way the mailer could be seen as mobilizing voters for any federal election.
Unfortunately, the state has a recent history with campaign finance violations—former Governor John Rowland’s “pay-to-play” mentality is what got him sent to prison in 2004. In fact, the “Citizens Election Program” was passed in response to this scandal. However, since the program’s inception in 2005, Democratic legislators have been accused of eroding much of the intent and purpose of these campaign finance protections, particularly after Malloy took office in 2010. For example, in March 2012, Malloy wanted to allow publicly financed candidates to raise unlimited funds from special interest groups in races where they faced high spending opponents. Though this attempt failed, Democrats in the General Assembly the next year opened up the Citizens Election Program to special interest group money, when they voted to permit unlimited organizational expenditures from state committees and increase the amount individuals could contribute to Political Action Committees and party committees. Once again in 2013, the legislature, controlled by Democrats, rolled back many of the 2005 reforms, including the measure that capped what state parties can spend on state races. Connecticut Republicans believe that these changes, along with many others, have turned the state’s campaign finance system into the mess it is today.
Several proposals have been brought up in the state legislature to repair the Citizens Election Program, but none of these efforts to reinforce the 2005 clean-election reforms have been successful. Some advocates for campaign finance reform in Connecticut have indicated that one main focus is to tighten the state contractor ban, making it difficult for contractors to donate to federal accounts funding state races—essentially, these advocates want to avoid what allegedly occurred with Malloy in the 2014 elections. Other advocates have targeted the need for more transparency with candidates’ finances: though quarterly campaign finance reports are already required, some suggest that weekly or even daily reports should be required so that voters can see who has contributed and how much, as well as how the money was spent and from what account it was taken. Reform advocates do at least seem to be in agreement on one thing: something needs to change in Connecticut, as the ideals of transparency and integrity in elections are worth preserving.