A five-member panel of state Supreme Court justices on Tuesday denied Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Tom Foley’s request to stop the State Elections Enforcement Commission from giving additional public funds to one of his opponents.
After more than an hour of oral argument and a brief recess, Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Rogers ruled from the bench in favor of the state and Foley’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele. She did not offer a reason or say whether the panel’s decision was unanimous, but a written decision will be forthcoming.
It marks the fourth time a court has ruled against Foley in recent weeks.
Wesley Horton, Foley’s attorney, said he was disappointed in the decision.
“We don’t know what their reasoning could be,” Horton said on the steps of the courthouse across the street from the Capitol Building. “The issue of the double-dipping seemed to be going well.”
Horton had argued that the SEEC had violated its own rules by allowing Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton to combine his campaign contribution fund with Fedele’s. By double counting some of Boughton’s $100 contributions, Horton said the commission essentially allowed one donor to donate $200—an amount above what was envisioned by the clean elections law.
The other side argued that the legislature specifically wrote the campaign finance law to allow such double-counting. State Superior Court Judge Julia L. Aurigemma agreed with that argument when she ruled against Foley last week – the same ruling that was upheld by the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.
“;Legally, this is over. This is it. If we’re taking a political stand on this, I’ll take the side of taxpayer money any day,” Foley campaign manager Justin Clark said. He urged the Fedele campaign not to seek the extra $312,500 grant Wednesday and also urged it to give back the $937,500 grant it received two weeks ago. Combined, the Fedele and Boughton campaign raised $250,000 in contributions under $100 and received a $1.25 million public grant. Since Foley spent more than $2.4 million, Fedele’s campaign received an extra $937,500. The commission is expected to vote on the $312,500 at its meeting Wednesday.
“We are confounded as to why Lieutenant Governor Fedele, who is a man of means and could easily fund his own campaign, is relying on taxpayer dollars instead,” Clark said. “We don’t believe it is a proper use of taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns.”
Chris Cooper, a Fedele campaign spokesman, said most of the $2.18 million the campaign received already has been spent or committed through advertising contracts. He was uncertain about whether the campaign will seek the $312,500 grant Wednesday.
“This is just another way in which Tom Foley is trying to buy the election,” Cooper said. “He thinks he’s the only one who should buy ads.”
With the lawsuit decided, Clark waded back into more familiar political waters. “If we’re taking a political stand on this, I’ll take the side of taxpayer money any day,” he said, reiterating the Foley campaign’s objection to spending public money on campaigns.
Meanwhile, advocates of the clean elections program were happy with the decision.
“I’m thrilled,” Beth Rotman, executive director of the Citizens’ Election Program, said immediately after Rogers issued her opinion. She said she hopes the ruling allows participating candidates to breathe a sigh of relief. She also hopes it gives them a sense of confidence in dealing with the commission and the program.
Confident the court would rule in favor of the state, Rotman said the first question the justices asked when they sat down was about discretion and deference. She said the court has to give deference to state agencies charged with administering the statutes.
“We are considered the experts,” Rotman said.
However, the courts have had a lot to say on this issue lately.
Last week the Second Circuit Court affirmed part of U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill’s conclusion that supplemental grants given to publicly financed candidates running against wealthy, or self-funded opponents, are unconstitutional.
However, in a separate federal lawsuit in which Foley requested similar relief from the court, Underhill ruled Friday against Foley’s request to stop Fedele from receiving funds.
Underhill concluded that Foley’s campaign waited too long to file the lawsuit and authorized the State Elections Enforcement Commission to release the additional $312,500 supplement grant to Fedele. The release of the additional funds, which the Fedele’s campaign has not said it will seek, would bring Fedele’s campaign coffers up to $2.5 million in the Aug. 10 primary.
It’s was unclear Tuesday whether the state Supreme Court justices agreed with any of Horton’s arguments or if they felt the lawsuit was filed too close to the Aug. 10 primary.