Christine Stuart photo
State Elections Enforcement Commission meets (Christine Stuart photo)

The State Elections Enforcement Commission dismissed a complaint against Northeast Utilities CEO Thomas May Tuesday, but not before offering some harsh criticism of the solicitation the state contractor sent last September to his employees.

“The next gubernatorial election is upon us, and I am asking each of you to join me in financially supporting Connecticut’s Governor Dannel P. Malloy,” May wrote in his Sept. 27, 2013 email to company managers. The email, which was sent from May’s private gmail account, suggested that donations be made to the Connecticut Democratic State Central’s federal account.

State election law prohibits state contractors from contributing to state party accounts or the campaigns of statewide candidates. Even though the email solicitation mentioned Malloy’s accomplishments at length, the commission was unable to find that May violated state election law because the money went to the party’s federal account.

“The Commission does conclude that the content of the solicitation by Mr. May is both offensive and disturbing and violates the spirit and intent of the Connecticut state contractor ban,” the 5-0 decision to dismiss the complaint reads.

Michael Brandi, executive director of the SEEC, stressed that the contributions to the federal account are simply not regulated by state law.

“However, the content of the solicitation was egregious and violated both the spirit and intent of the law,” Brandi said. “While we can not find a specific violation of the letter of the law in this case we certainly believe that the efforts through this solicitation were meant to circumvent the spirit, certainly meant to violate, the spirit and intent of the state contractor ban.”

Going forward, Brandi said state regulators will continue to monitor all contributions to the Democratic Party’s federal account and will bring it back to the commission, if they find a potential violation.

“Although I believe the solicitation and donations from NU to the DSCC’s federal account were a blatant diversion and total disregard of our strong campaign financing laws, the laws as currently written are the laws of our state,” SEEC Vice Chairman Sal Bramante, said.

SEEC Commissioner Stephen Penny said he thinks the decision will come as a surprise to most people, since it was a surprise to the commission.

“At first blush, the conduct of this respondent appeared to be an egregious violation of Connecticut campaign finance law,” Penny said. “But after careful review of state law we were unable to find any specific violations.”

He said to direct money that was on its face being raised to support a statewide candidate and deposit that money into the party’s federal account “is an abuse not only of what that federal account is intended for, but clearly seems to be an effort to bypass the workings of the Connecticut finance law.”

He suggested the state legislature needs to take a look at revising Connecticut’s law to prohibit this type of conduct.

“We appreciate the conclusion that this was not a violation of the law,” Caroline Pretyman, a spokeswoman for Northeast Utilities, said in response to the decision. “Northeast Utilities takes its legal obligations very seriously.”

In total, 28 of the 50 NU employees or officers who received May’s email contributed a total of about $50,750 to the Democratic Party’s federal account, according to SEEC Investigator William Smith.

Smith told the commission Tuesday that state contractors are prohibited from soliciting contributions for or making contributions to a gubernatorial candidate or state party committee. Smith said there was never a dispute that Northeast Utilities was a state contractor, but there’s no state law that prohibits a state contractor from contributing to a party’s federal account.

“It should be stressed that federal law does not create a loophole in Connecticut campaign finance laws that would allow federal committees to make expenditures that result in contributions to Connecticut candidates,” Smith said.

Smith explained to the commission that the idea for solicitation was developed by Margaret Morton, vice president of government affairs for NU.

“Ms. Morton claimed that the solicitation was an effort to further NU business strategy,” Smith said. “She also claimed that she was aware of Connecticut’s campaign finance laws and that her intent of the solicitation was for the federal account of the Democratic Central Committee and not the campaign of Gov. Malloy.”

Smith told the commission that Morton denied that the Democratic State Central Committee helped develop the solicitation. Ben Josephson, a fundraising contractor for the Democratic Party, told investigators that he asked Morton for a contribution to the federal account. He denied asking for contributions for the benefit of Malloy, who wasn’t even a declared candidate until months after the email was sent.

Click here to read the entire decision.