A legislative mystery: Who changed a watchdog’s bill?

The State Elections Enforcement Commission was surprised Monday to find a provision added to campaign finance legislation that, arguably at least, might undermine the commission in its litigation against the Connecticut Democratic Party.

One reason for the surprise was that the unwanted language appeared in a bill proposed by an agency normally sympathetic to the goals of the elections enforcement commission: That would be the commission itself.

“Why was this language added?” Michael Brandi, the executive director and general counsel of the commission, asked in public hearing testimony submitted Monday to the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee. “Why at this time?”

No one could say.

To those questions, The Mirror added its own: Who did it?

“I was asking myself that question as I was listening,” said Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, the co-chair of the committee.

“I have no idea,” said his co-chair, Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester.

The language is technical, but Brandi says it appears to redefine a section of a 21-year-old state campaign finance law pertaining to party committees and how they interact with federal campaign law.

That’s a concern, because the commission has sued in Superior Court to compel the Democratic Party to honor a subpoena for records in an investigation of a Republican complaint that the party illegally aided the re-election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

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

Federal law requires that get-out-the-vote activity in a federal election year – and every statewide election in Connecticut coincides with congressional races in even-numbered years – must be financed with the federal campaign account.

David S. Golub, the lawyer defending the Democratic Party, 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.

Michael Brandi, general counsel and executive director of State Elections Enforcement Commission. and Commissioner Stephen Penny.

CT Mirror file photo

Michael Brandi, general counsel and executive director of State Elections Enforcement Commission. foreground.

Brandi said Monday it was curious to find the language in the agency’s bill as a Superior Court judge is expected to rule on the validity of the subpoena.

“Now, when a decision is expected any day from the court, this committee is proposing language which appears to be intended to drastically narrow the lawful purpose of a Connecticut party committee,” Brandi said. “We would welcome any explanation for why this change is being proposed at this time.”

A spokesman for Malloy said the language was not submitted by the governor’s office.

Rep. Richard A. Smith of New Fairfield, the ranking House Republican on the committee, said the inability of the committee’s co-chairs to identify the source of the language is a symptom of an institution not fully transparent.

“It says everything about the process,” Smith said.

Five years ago, a revision to a budget bill would have transferred control of the state’s public financing of campaigns from the non-partisan elections enforcement commission to the elected office of the secretary of the state. Then as now, no one took credit for the change, which was deleted before passage.

Cassano said he doubted the committee would approve any legislation that could be seen as interfering with the litigation. Brandi said the commissioner prefers that the bill be rejected unless the language is removed.

Jutila said Monday evening that he asked the legislative commissioner’s office — a bipartisan legal office that that drafts bills and amendments — to write a bill based solely on the commission’s proposal for greater disclosure regarding independent campaign expenditures whose sources are now hard to track.

He spoke after the legislative commissioner’s office, commonly known as the “LCO” at the Capitol, was closed for the day, and no one could be reached for comment.

“I have to understand it better myself, where it came from,” Jutila said. “Our staff is really super about not doing anything without consulting the chairs. It may be a mistake. It may be something that LCO thought was necessary and didn’t realize the implications of it. We have really good lawyers, so that would be surprising to me. I don’t know. I’m at a loss.”

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