State auditors concluded that Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office did not violate any laws when it sent newsletters to around 5,400 residents, but they declined to weigh in on whether the emails were political in nature.
The auditors published a report on the issue Monday afternoon. Merrill requested a review after she discontinued the newsletters in October. The official emails were criticized as appearing political because many of the recipients had connections to the Democratic Party, and many of the email addresses came from her 2010 campaign list.
The auditors found that Merrill’s office did not break any laws in the process of sending out the newsletters.
“However, there may always be a question as to whether the e-newsletters were emailed to individuals to inform them of what your office is doing, or to get your name out to those individuals for partisan political purposes,” the report said. “We found no substantive documentation to positively support that the e-newsletter project was for clearly political purposes, although it could be perceived that it was.”
Merrill apologized in October for the perception that the emails were politically motivated. She said the newsletter was designed to keep people informed about the work of her office.
The informational newsletter sent through SwiftPage cost 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.
On Monday, Merrill said she was relieved by the auditors’ findings but not surprised by them.
“It’s pretty much what I expected and what I said at the time. There’s no state law that’s been broken, there’s no political content, there’s no intent to do anything wrong. So essentially I feel relieved that they’ve come to the same conclusion that I did,” she said.
Merrill said she understood why the auditors said the newsletter could have been perceived as political.
“In a sense, almost anything that anyone in office can do can be perceived as political so you have to be very careful. I think the only thing they were saying is that there could have been an impression that it could have been political. But you can say that about a lot of things,” she said.
Asked if she was considering doing another newsletter, Merrill said she was not. In December, she filed paperwork to run this year for a second term as Secretary of the State. Public officials seeking re-election are subject to more stringent restrictions on using their office for self promotion within one year of the election.
“I think not,” Merrill said of another newsletter. “Especially now that I’m an announced candidate. [The discontinued newsletter] was well before any deadline. I’m now an announced candidate so I will certainly make sure that there’s no impression that I’m doing anything political on the job.”
In October, Republicans said that as Secretary of the State, Merrill has taken a number of actions that left many people with the perception that she’s engaging in political activity while serving in a non-partisan office.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero pointed to billboards featuring Merrill, which her office paid for in 2012 to encourage people to vote. He also referenced disputes between Merrill and Republicans over election policy issues.