Christine Stuart photo
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero flanked by Sens. John McKinney and Len Fasano (Christine Stuart photo)

(Updated 4:50 p.m.) Republican lawmakers called the Democratic Party’s request to federal election regulators a “brazen” attempt to “toss out our state election laws” by allowing donations from state contractors to support statewide candidates.

Gathered at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford Tuesday, Republican lawmakers criticized the Democratic Party’s request to use funds donated to its federal account to pay for a mailer promoting Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s re-election bid.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said to their credit “they’re very honest with what they hope to do” by getting the Federal Election Commission to allow it to use its federal account to promote state candidates.

Currently, money raised for the party’s federal account supports federal candidates and a portion of its staff. Since the money doesn’t fund state candidates it’s the preferred location for state contractor donations.

State contractors are prohibited from donating to state candidates under a 2005 law that created the Citizens Election Program in the wake of former Gov. John G. Rowland’s corruption scandal. The law was challenged in federal court and the contractor ban was upheld.

“Although the Connecticut campaign finance ban on contractor contributions is a drastic measure, it is an appropriate response to a specific series of incidents that have created a strong appearance of corruption with respect to all contractor contributions,” Cafero said. “The federal government upheld our law.”

If the Democratic Party is successful in getting the FEC to rule in their favor it would essentially obliterate Connecticut’s clean election laws, Republican lawmakers said.

Cafero said it’s understandable that in tight statewide and legislative races they would want to spend the money they’ve collected in the federal account, but state law prohibits them from doing that. So instead of abiding by the law, the Democratic Party hired a Washington D.C. attorney to go to try and change the law.

“They’ve hired a person to go to the federal agency and say ‘please tell the state to butt out of our business we don’t want to follow that law. We want to do it our way’,” Cafero said summing up the Democratic Party’s request.

Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney, who lost the Republican nomination to challenge Malloy, said what the Democratic Party and the governor is trying to do with this request is “shamelessly undo that ban on contractors.”

McKinney and Cafero said there’s a reason the Democratic Party’s federal account has more money in it than the state account and that’s because they have gone out and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from state contractors who do business with the state.

The two presented the media with a partial list of state contractors who have given money to the Democratic Party’s federal account, including the Edward Snider, whose company was chosen to manage the XL Center in Hartford. Snider gave $10,000 to the party’s state account. The party refunded the money only to have Snider rewrite the check to its federal account.

Devon Puglia, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, declined to answer questions after the Republican press conference. He directed reporters to a statement released prior to the event, which questioned where money raised by Republican Governors Association Chairman Chris Christie was going.

“This reeks of desperation. If the CT GOP wants to be so transparent, they should tell voters how and where Chris Christie’s fundraising dollars are being spent and whether this so-called ‘special account’ for Tom Foley violates campaign finance laws,” Puglia’s statement said.

Zak Sanders, a spokesman for the Republican Party, said Republicans have had two fundraisers involving Christie.

“Both have benefited the Connecticut Republican Party state account, which is the account used to support our state candidates and the account in which we can’t accept money from state contractors,” he said. Sanders said the party referred to the account as the “Governor’s Victory Trust” before they had a nominee, but it was still subject to all the regulations of state law.

McKinney said none of the lawmakers who voted for the campaign finance bill in 2005 would support the use of federal account money proposed by Democrats.

“I defy you to find somebody who would say that because if they did, they would be lying,” he said. 

Asked about the allegations from Republicans, Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney said he could not comment directly, but said the state’s campaign finance laws have been harmed by the Citizens United decision, which has allowed unlimited spending in elections by Super PACs.

“Now there is funding coming in from outside sources. We had a pristine system for a couple of election cycles, where people could qualify for the public grant and that would be the amount they used in the election,” he said. “Now, with other money coming into the system, it’s unfortunate but additional flexibility has to be built in to counteract late appearing, well-funded attacks.”

Looney pointed to late-October attack ads targeted in 2012 against Democratic state senators. The ads were funded by a Super PAC with one donor, Thomas Peterffy, a billionaire from Greenwich.

“You have to have some greater sense of flexibility to respond to these things,” Looney said.

Cafero said the Citizens United decision was no excuse for what the Democratic Party was trying to accomplish with the FEC request. He said the legislature had “another crack” at the state campaign finance law in 2013, after the decision, and chose to leave in place the ban on contractor contribution in statewide races.

Looney reaffirmed that Citizens United was the “camel’s nose under the tent” that disrupted state election laws.

“Everything else that’s had to be done since then flows from that, I think,” he said.

A spokesman for the State Elections Enforcement Commission said it would be filing its objection to the Democratic Party’s request by Friday with the FEC.

“We oppose any attempt to allow state contractor or other special interest money to influence Connecticut campaigns, and any effort to hinder public disclosure of contributions,” State Elections Enforcement Commission Executive Director Michael Brandi said. “It is a matter of great importance to the integrity of Connecticut elections that funds that are generally prohibited from being used in Connecticut elections are not, in fact, used to make expenditures in Connecticut elections.”