Democrats argue to judge, and voters, in campaign case

David S. Golub, left, making a point to opposing counsel, Assistant Attorney General Maura Murphy Osborne.

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David S. Golub, left, making a point to opposing counsel, Assistant Attorney General Maura Murphy Osborne.

The Connecticut Democratic Party staged a public-relations offensive in court Tuesday with a challenge to the authority of state elections regulators and a rebuttal of Republican allegations of illegal spending to support the re-election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Superior Court Judge Antonio C. Robaino was a restive audience, repeatedly suggesting the record before him was sufficient to decide the narrow question before him: Should the court compel Democrats to produce a wide array of documents demanded by the State Elections Enforcement Commission?

“There’s no mystery about what happened here,” Robaino said. “It was either right or wrong. Let’s have that argument.”

But the judge ultimately relented, allowing a day of testimony by Michael Mandell, the executive director of the state Democratic Party. David S. Golub, the party’s lawyer, was unapologetic for making a case directed at the judge and the broader public.

Michael Mandell

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Michael Mandell

“Unfortunately, there is a public component to this case,” Golub said.

Golub said his clients have lost the public narrative about whether Democrats improperly used state contractor contributions, which are barred from state campaigns, to indirectly benefit the governor’s re-election. But the facts, he said, tell another story.

“That’s what my client tried to do today,” Golub said.

Robaino is tentatively scheduled to hear final arguments on Dec. 1. He is expected to then make his ruling in a written decision.

In briefs and during a hearing last month, Assistant Attorney General Maura Osborne Murphy has told Robaino that the federal preemption issue is premature and the commission’s subpoena should be honored. Her only witness last month was Michael Brandi, the executive director and general counsel of the elections commission.

Judge Antonio C. Robaino

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Judge Antonio C. Robaino

Republicans complained that the Democrats used their federal campaign account, which can accept contractor contributions, to pay for direct mail, staff and polling in support of the governor.

Mandell testified Tuesday that federal election law left the party with no choice: Any get-out-the-vote activity in a federal election year – and every statewide election in Connecticut coincides with congressional races – must be financed with the federal campaign account.

Any mail, even a piece that features the governor, is considered a federal election activity if it contains broader information about polling hours and how voters can obtain a ride to the polls.

Mandell said the voter-turnout mail was sent to voters identified as supporting the governor, who led the Democratic ticket in 2014. Persuasive mailers with messages directed at undecided voters, which were not considered federal election activity, were paid out of the state account, he said.

Golub has told the court that the party’s spending was dictated by federal law, which preempts the state investigation and invalidates the subpoena. With no valid authority for the subpoena, the demand for confidential documents is a fishing expedition, he said.

The lawyer also told the judge that the documents demanded by the commission were intrusive because they demanded the identities of anyone who solicited contributions of more than $1,000 and a variety of internal communications, including the preparation of polls.

Mandell said the disclosure of such information would have a chilling effect on the ability of the party to function, though he did not say why the identify of a fundraiser should remain confidential while names of contributors are not.

The judge said the commission’s demands for information struck him as overly broad.

Mandell testified that the party has turned over campaign finance records and provided copies of the direct mail pieces for the commission’s review.

Party officials took a harder line with the commission after the attorney leading the investigation, Kevin Ahern, refused to consider the federal preemption issue and made clear in an email that federal law would not be considered, Mandell said.

Golub said the party’s decision not to honor the subpoena was their only way to get a court to rule on the preemption issue.

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