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Friday, February 8, 2008

Obama emails raise eyebrows






By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
NEW HAVEN
— At 2 p.m. Jan. 17, an announcement from city spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga hit media inboxes. “Mayor DeStefano endorses Obama for president,” it said.
In the weeks leading up to Super Tuesday and immediately after, Mayorga sent out four more Obama e-mails: “Three new aldermen endorse Obama for president”; “Mayor DeStefano to lead rally in support of Obama for president”; “correction: Obama rally will take place 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 19,” and “Mayor DeStefano celebrates Obama’s primary win.”
While there’s nothing in state election law barring use of municipal staff to publicize a political endorsement, other politicians say they avoid the practice.
Joan Andrews, director of legal affairs and enforcement for the state Elections Enforcement Commission, said, “I’m not condoning it. It’s not appropriate.”
Connecticut ethics codes do not explicitly bar state officials from using staff to publicize endorsements, but the state Office of Ethics has previously advised against it.
DeStefano, however, defended the announcements, saying his support for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic primary was news.
“It was just a matter of fact. I didn’t ask anybody in my statement to vote for him. There was no attempt to persuade,” he said.
But it appears DeStefano may be in the minority. No politicians or spokesmen asked about the practice, including Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, state House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, staff for Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, staff for U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, and staff for Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, said they used office staff or time for endorsements.
When Blumenthal endorsed New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, a fellow Democrat, his press aides didn’t know until informed by a reporter.
“We have a very strict, impenetrable wall between our normal attorney general work and any political endorsements and activities,” Blumenthal said. “Neither in local elections nor in national primaries or elections is my press staff involved.
“They are state employees working on official and public business of my office and have more than enough to do.” he said.
Blumenthal said he was hesitant to weigh in on how endorsements have been handled in other offices, but said New Haven’s practice “might be problematic.”
“But it would really depend on all of the circumstances,” he said. “People will say they’re working on their lunch hour, taking a private hour or doing it on their own, but the problem is as much with the appearance of impropriety, which is important to the public. This is the reason I have a very strict separation. To avoid any question.”
Malloy said his Clinton endorsement was publicized by her campaign, and he has never used City Hall staff to announce a political endorsement. “I won’t do that,” he said. “Political is political, staff is staff,” he said.Finch’s office has a policy barring political campaign work on city time, said Finch’s chief of staff, Adam Wood.
When Finch endorsed Clinton, the press release came from Clinton’s campaign. “City government is nonpolitical. Political endorsements are simply not city business,” Wood said.
Wood worked on Clinton’s campaign, and said he took a vacation day on Super Tuesday and “did a lot of work on weekends.”
When DeLauro announced her support for Obama, news came from her campaign office, Obama’s staff and the congresswoman herself on a Saturday. The e-mail from DeLauro was sent from a private e-mail account, and not from her congressional account.
According to DeLauro spokeswoman Adriana Surfas (who did not release the endorsement), the campaign office that released the endorsement is paid for by fundraising.Bysiewicz, a Democrat, has not endorsed a candidate for this year’s presidential race beyond verbally expressing support for Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd’s now defunct campaign. Her chief of staff, Michelle Gilman, said when Bysiewicz has supported candidates, “she would consider that political activity under state law, not permitted on state premises.”
“She would do that on her own time with her own resources,” Gilman said.
Mayorga said Thursday she could not recall who suggested her involvement in the mayor’s endorsements, but said it did not bother her.
“My job is to carry out the message of the mayor. … This was beyond a political endorsement. This was a set of ideas he believed in, because he felt New Haven could benefit from some of the ideas Senator Obama has been promoting. There was a direct connection to New Haven,” she said.
Mayorga does not often send out aldermanic press releases, but said she was asked by Aldermen Gina Calder, D-2, Greg Morehead, D-22, and Joseph Rodriguez, D-15, to announce their support for Obama. Had other aldermen supporting other candidates asked for similar assistance, Mayorga said she would have helped them. “They could have approached me. ... These individuals just happened to ask me on one given afternoon,” she said.
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714, or ebenton@nhregister.com.

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