State finds no violation in Dems’ Commerce Drive headquarters
FAIRFIELD — State election officials won’t be taking any action on a complaint from Republicans over their counterpart’s headquarters, prompting accusations of cheating, deception, and Trump-like tactics.
Republican Town Committee Chairman James Millington filed the complaint in April, claiming that the Democratic Town Committee was receiving an illegal corporate donation for the headquarters at 338 Commerce Drive. The building is owned by Penczer Associates, LLC, whose managing partner is Peter Penczer, who has long been involved with the local Democrats.
“I was extremely surprised by the ruling,” Millington said. “The ruling opens the doors for all political parties to accept corporate contributions in this manner.”
He said he believes state legislation needs to be adoapted to close what he termed a loophole.
“We are very pleased with the State Elections Enforcement Commission’s ruling that our use of the space at 338 Commerce Drive as DTC headquarters for the 2016 campaign violated no campaign finance laws, and that no further action will be taken in this matter,” Democratic Town Committee Chairman Steve Sheinberg said. “We are disappointed and extremely concerned, however, to see the CT GOP’s dismissal of the Commission’s conclusions and their outright refusal to accept the rule of law in this matter. Their highly inflammatory response to the ruling should be of concern to anyone who respects the rule of law as well as the important process of maintaining the integrity of our state's electoral process.”
In his complaint, Millington alleged the DTC received an in-kind donation from Penczer because they did not pay a fair market rent. A local real estate agent, Millington said the DTC only made one rental/utilities payment of $2,450 when he said his calculations showed they should have paid $60,000.
The ruling by the State Elections Enforcement Commission to take no action on the complaint also drew the ire of J.R. Romano, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee.
“Essentially now we have the SEEC making it allowable for corporate donations to come into politics.,” Romano said. “They have set the precedent at this point, by not holding the Fairfield Democrats accountable to one of the clearest state statutes of not allowing corporate contributions of any kind.”
Romano also sent out a press release singling out this statement from the ruling: “In this case, a typical lease for the space used by the FDTC would have greatly exceeded the amount they were charged.” His release accuses state regulators of turning a blind eye to “sketchy” campaign cash.
Sheinberg took issue with Romano’s reaction. “We are disappointed and extremely concerned, however, to see the CT GOP’s dismissal of the commission’s conclusions, and their outright refusal to accept the rule of law in this matter,” he said. “Their highly inflammatory response to the ruling should be of concern to anyone who respects the rule of law as well as the important process of maintaining the integrity of our state's electoral process”.
He said the GOP’s “insinuation that the bipartisan, independent commission, appointed by both Democrats and Republicans, is corrupt simply because a ruling is not to their liking is wading into an extremely dangerous territory and is a page out of the Trump administration playbook.”
While stating a typical lease would have charged more rent, the ruling notes that the agreement between Penczer and the DTC “was in no way typical” due to restrictions on the lease agreement because of the pending sale of the building which “naturally depressed the value of the space.”
According to the commission, the town committee wasn’t the only group using the space, and large portions of that space were inaccessible because other occupants were using it for storage. The other occupants were not paying any rent, and the DTC was not permitted to make any alterations to space.
”Thus, the question is whether $2,450 is a fair price for use of the space subject to the extraordinary limitations placed on the FDTC by the company,” the commission said. Because of those limitations, the commission said, they determined that the price paid was reasonable “given that the fair market value was difficult to determine.”
While Millington and Romano said the decision sets a precedent, the SEEC took pains to emphasize that “the facts, in this case, were highly unusual and the commission will closely scrutinize any agreement that appears to be circumventing the business entity contribution prohibition.”
Millington said the building didn’t seel in January 2017, and space was actively marketed by Colonial Realty for rent throughout that time period.
He said Sheinberg said their agreement allowed the landlord to remove the DTC should they find a tenant willing to pay more. “If the landlord was prohibited from entering into any lease agreements, how was the ‘agreement’ with the Democrats or any other agreements with tenants even possible,” Millington said, adding the DTC continued to use the space during 2017 at various time. “The question still remains as to who paid the utility bills.”