Fairfield parties disagree over emails with consultant
FAIRFIELD — Weeks after he was criticized for hiring a communications consultant to handle the fill pile scandal, First Selectman Mike Tetreau is being accused of using the consultant for political gain.
Newly obtained emails sent between Tetreau, a Democrat, and consultant Chris Gidez contain references to Republican Brenda Kupchick, Tetreau’s opponent in the re-election race. Republicans say this is clear evidence of the political misappropriation of $20,000 in taxpayer funds, while Tetreau maintains that Gidez served the town, not him.
The accusations come one week before the general election on Nov. 5. The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information request filed by Republican Selectman Chris Tymniak, who lost the First Selectman race four years ago and has made no secret of his dislike for Tetreau’s governance.
Experts say there could be validity to both sides’ views of Gidez’s work because the use of consultants by incumbents is a definite gray area.
“When you have an incumbent running for re-election, anything that makes the town look good can be interpreted as favoring the incumbent, so it’s open to interpretation,” said Ronald Schurin, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.
“It is not unheard of for a town that is trying to convey something complex to hire someone with technical expertise,” Schurin added. “Where that [ventures] into political advocacy is judgement call.”
Gidez was hired to handle communications regarding the arrests of two town employees and Julian Enterprises’ co-owner, who are accused of conspiring to allow Julian to dump truck loads of contaminated waste into the town’s fill pile.
The town decided to retain Gidez to handle additional communications when it came to light that Julian had resold some of the contaminated soil as clean fill for construction projects in the town. After testing 60 sites at parks, fields and playgrounds, the town identified eight areas that need to be cleaned up, a million-dollar operation.
In one such email from Aug. 13, Gidez suggested acting quickly in response to the spread of information about testing at the town’s Gould Manor Park in order to “not give BK any room to amplify this.”
Kupchick, the Republican state representative opposing Tetreau, has vocally condemned Tetreau’s handling of the fill pile issue, calling it “a total lack of accountability, transparency and leadership from the top.”
Tymniak said getting ahead of Kupchick’s criticism was clear political advice, which he condemned as illegal.
“I believe it is criminal to use taxpayer money for campaign purposes,” Tymniak said.
On Wednesday, Tymniak filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission about the expenditure.
Reached for comment, Kupchick agreed with Tymniak’s assertion that Gidez’s discussion of her was completely out of line with his role as a town payee.
“To me, this is so blatantly political,” Kupchick said.
Tetreau, meanwhile, has maintained that Gidez’s work was in service of the town. The discussion of Kupchick, he said, was in response to her inflammatory social media posts that Gidez thought disseminated incorrect information and was harmful to the town beyond the election.
Tetreau cited Kupchick’s Aug. 7 tweet about the material in Gould Manor Park, which she called “hazardous” before tests had come back. He said this was incorrect, as the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection clearly stated the material was not hazardous.
“As much as Ms. Kupchick is a candidate, her comments were frankly a bit reckless,” Tetreau said. “So Mr. Gidez wanted to make sure that our messaging got out on a timely basis.”
Gary Rose, professor and chair of government, politics and global studies at Sacred Heart University, said the situation is open to interpretation by both parties.
“I can understand the concerns and how [opponents] are perhaps making the claim, but it is a very gray area,” Rose said. “I think the incumbent could still make the case that he was using the authority that’s vested in him for the benefit of the town … but if the emails do seem to involve the politics of the town, then the opposition certainly does have a stronger case against him.”