Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said she feels “terrible” a newsletter that her office emailed to about 5,400 Connecticut residents — many with connections to the Democratic Party — was perceived as politicking.
“I’m deeply sorry if that’s the impression that has been created,” Merrill said Tuesday at a 3 p.m. press conference in her Capitol office.
The informational newsletter sent through SwiftPage costs about $400 per month in labor, Merrill’s spokesman said. All five issues, which started in June, also were shared on her social media sites for anyone to see. The newsletter sent on Oct. 1 featured Merrill’s voter registration drive in New Haven and information about a union convention.
But it wasn’t necessarily the content of the newsletter that was questioned by the Republican Party. Rather, it was the list of email addresses to which it was sent. Merrill admitted that “much of the list did come from my 2010 campaign.”
Once the campaign ended in 2010, the email addresses she gathered became her personal property. She said the list was transferred from the campaign to her office “on private computers by some of my staff on their own private time, not while in the office.”
She said the actual work on the newsletter was done in the office, but the transfer of the emails was done by her staff on their own time. She said she saved the state money by not purchasing email lists and cultivating her own.
“I think the real problem here is the impression it created more than the reality itself,” Merrill said.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said he believed Merrill’s assertion that she was not using the newsletter for political gain and applauded her for acting on the perception that she was. But Cafero said Merrill’s office has engaged in more than one thing that has left many people with the perception that she’s engaging in political activity while serving in a non-partisan office.
“On their own they never really amounted to much but the cumulative effect is giving the impression — hopefully not the reality — but the impression that the office is being used for political purposes,” he said.
Cafero said those things include billboards Merrill’s office purchased last year to remind voters to cast ballots on Election Day. The billboards prominently featured a photograph of Merrill.
“It was supposed to be a public service announcement but with all due respect, it was more about Denise Merrill than ‘the message,’” he said.
Cafero said Merrill’s office also has appeared to have political motives in squabbles with Republicans over which party should be listed first on voter ballots and whether municipalities can allow residents to vote early without an amendment to the state constitution.
“These things cumulatively give the impression, the perception, that a nonpartisan office, the chief elections enforcement office of the state of Connecticut, is being used in some partisan ways. I think that is what this is really all about,” he said.
In an effort to put an end to the criticism, Merrill asked the Auditors of Public Accounts to conduct a special audit of the newsletter project. The Republican Party also filed a request with the Auditors of Public Accounts to look into the matter.
“It appears that this list is a taxpayer financed tool to help the political standing of Secretary Merrill, who will be up for re-election next year,” Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. wrote in a letter to the auditors. “Given a previous ruling by the Office of the state Attorney General that deemed this practice to be inappropriate, it begs the question whether Secretary Merrill and Ms. Wegele understand the law and whether their actions are willful.”
Shannon Wegele is Merrill’s chief of staff, who also worked on Merrill’s 2010 campaign. Merrill said she hasn’t decided yet whether she will seek re-election in 2014.
At an unrelated press conference earlier Tuesday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he did not know whether Merrill’s office had done anything wrong based on what he had read about the newsletter and the mailing list.
“People communicate with constituents. It’s not unusual to have more constituents of your party that want to be communicated with,” he said, adding that he would reserve judgment since Merrill was expected to speak about the issue later in the day.
“Process is important, by the way. So I’m not dismissive of that. There may have been better ways and better places to keep lists, but on the other hand, the idea that somebody wants to communicate about their office with people who want to be communicated with shouldn’t surprise anyone,” he said.
Attorney General George Jepsen said it’s an issue that could be referred to his office by the auditors and it would be inappropriate for him to comment on it.
His predecessor, Richard Blumenthal, found that former Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz misused a state database to send “inappropriate” political communications.
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.