The Hartford Courant Jon Lender column [The Hartford Courant]
(Hartford Courant (CT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 12--Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has been using her taxpayer-funded office to maintain a computerized list of names and email addresses of thousands of Democratic activists and campaign contributors -- to whom she sends a monthly newsletter touting her accomplishments.
Her actions are reminiscent of widely-condemned practices by her predecessor in the office, Susan Bysiewicz. Bysiewicz's campaign for state attorney general failed in 2010 amid a scandal over a politically-tinged "constituent database" -- which Bysiewicz maintained in her office and utilized to send a similar newsletter of her own.
Since June, Merrill -- a Democrat who has preached "good government" since winning her $110,000-a-year job as the state's top elections official in 2010 -- has been emailing a publication called "News From Denise Merrill, Secretary of the State" to more than 5,000 recipients each month.
Merrill, who is up for re-election next year although she hasn't declared her candidacy, says her newsletter is intended to keep her constituents informed.
But the list of recipients, obtained by the Courant through a public-records request, is densely packed with names of political donors and members of the state's Democratic establishment -- the kind of people a candidate wants to stay in touch with in order to win renomination and to raise campaign funds.
Government Watch has found that:
--More than half the people on Merrill's newsletter list -- upward of 2,800 -- were members of Democratic town committees in 2010. A computer analysis found exact matches between email addresses on Merrill's list and those on a 2010 list kept by the state Democratic Party of local committee members.
--More than 150 recipients were Democratic town chairpersons.
--More than 350 recipients donated money to Merrill's 2010 campaign.
--More than 900 people on the list didn't make political donations to Merrill's campaign, but did donate to other candidates on the statewide Democratic ticket in 2010 including now-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
--A computer review of state voter registration records determined the party affiliation of about 2,500 of those who receive Merrill's newsletter: 94 percent were Democrats, 2 percent were Republicans, and 4 percent were unaffiliated voters.
All of the above is consistent with a database that would be used by a candidate's election committee -- possibly Merrill's 2010 campaign committee for Secretary of the State in 2010.
However, when The Courant asked Merrill Friday if that that's where the list came from, she declined to answer.
Most of the names were sent to Merrill's office in April from the personal email account of Shannon Wegele, Merrill's $97,850-a-year chief of staff. Wegele assisted with Merrill's 2010 campaign, and previously had been an aide on her staff in the state legislature, where Merrill served as House majority leader.
Emails released to The Courant show that on April 26, Wegele sent an electronic attachment of about 5,000 names and email addresses from her personal Gmail account to the office's communications director, Av Harris. Later emails included further instructions from Wegele concerning use of the list to launch the new email newsletter.
Merrill, who is typically available to the press, declined to talk to The Courant Friday and instead responded to questions in a written statement relayed through Harris. As to the origin of the list, Merrill's statement said:
"The initial list of our e-newsletter recipients includes people I have known personally for a long time throughout my career in public service. Since then we have also added other groups of people to the list as well, people of varying political affiliations who have been involved in programs we have run so far in my term as Secretary of the State. As we continue to build the list I'm sure it will reflect the political and geographical diversity of those interested in the mission of this office."
The list includes prominent Democratic names from Gov. Malloy down to the 2,800 lesser-known members of local town committees in 2010. There's Democratic state party chair Nancy DiNardo. There are also influential Democratic figures such as Roy Occhiogrosso -- who was Malloy's campaign strategist, later senior adviser on the governor's staff, and now a political and communications consultant who's still close with Malloy. Democratic state legislators, along with labor union activists, and Capitol lobbyists, also are on the list.
Merrill's statement also said she has "travelled all over Connecticut talking to people of numerous different backgrounds and political affiliations about the importance of becoming civically engaged, and I have highlighted the many new initiatives I have launched during the last three years. During these travels many people have asked me to inform them from time to time what we are up to at the Secretary of the State's office, and that is the purpose of this electronic newsletter. I view communicating with the people I represent -- the citizens of Connecticut -- as an essential part of my job."
The Merrill newsletters show color pictures of her with constituents, students and others. Here are a few recent excerpts:
--"On August 7th I participated in a very exciting new program connecting young people from Connecticut and their counterparts in China so they can begin to build real economic ties. This is so important for our future entrepreneurs from Connecticut as they fight to stay competitive in a global economy." Merrill went on an eight-day trade mission to China last spring. Her office also maintains business registration records for the state.
--"On August 21st we had a wonderful kickoff for the 2013 Connecticut State Employees Campaign for Charitable Giving. I was joined by our state comptroller Kevin Lembo and Attorney General George Jepsen in an event at the state capitol with dozens of hard working Connecticut State Employees... Master of ceremonies for the event was none other than Meteorologist and TV personality Scot Haney of WFSB Channel 3." A picture showed her and Haney posing with their heads framed by a hula hoop.
--"On September 26th I had the honor of addressing the delegates to the annual Connecticut AFL-CIO Convention. We gathered to honor the lifetime work for organized labor of CT AFL-CIO President John Olsen...who is retiring this year after decades of leadership, and now the torch is being passed to Lori Pelletier."
The newsletter doesn't cost much. Harris said it involves about 10 hours of staff time each month, which he estimated as worth $400. He estimated software costs for the email newsletter at just over $100 a month.
However the cost of the database and newsletters was never a huge issue when Bysiewicz ran into trouble in 2010. The main issue was the alleged misuse of her public office for political purposes.
Bysiewicz used the database to email her own 'Secretary of the State's Electronic Newsletter" to thousands of people as Merrill is doing now. In 2010 then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal investigated and found that there was a "reasonable perception" that Bysiewicz's database "was developed as a useful tool for political campaign purposes."
After Merrill took office in 2011, she dismantled the Bysiewicz database. She avoided the sort of problems Bysiewicz had -- except when Merrill caused a stir a year ago by putting her face on highway billboards in a state-funded campaign encouraging voter participation.
That's where things stood -- until she began using the list provided by Wegele for her new newsletter starting this past June.
Bysiweicz's database was much bigger, containing 36,000 names and other information beyond email addresses -- such as home addresses and notations of many people's religion, race, ethnicity and political leanings. Blumenthal called it "inappropriate" to put such information in a publicly funded database. Bysiewicz defended her database by saying it also included hundreds Republican municipal officials and state legislators -- which Merrill's does not.
About one-sixth of the names in Bysiewicz's database were uploaded from her 2006 campaign committee's database, Blumenthal found. "There is no apparent legitimate state purpose for these campaign records to have been stored in the Secretary of the State's state database," Blumenthal said at the time.
If it turns out that Merrill's current list originated with her 2010 campaign committee -- a question, again, that she would not answer on Friday -- then the same issue could perhaps be raised about her current list.
Bysiewicz took an additional step with her office database that caused her problems in 2010: She had her campaign committee make a Freedom of Information Act request for the database, and, once it obtained the database from the office, the campaign committee used it for fundraising solicitations and other political purposes. Bysiewicz's 2010 opponent for the attorney general's nomination, now-Attorney General Jepsen, said at the time: ""This kind of gaming the system is what makes people cynical about government and politics."
Courant staff writer Matthew Kauffman contributed to this report.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115. His Twitter address is @jonlender.
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