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Perez Foe Has Own Ethics Challenges

Kevin Rennie

February 01, 2009

Few joys in politics surpass surviving to see an enemy vanquished. The fall of Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, who was arrested last week on charges of taking bribes from a city contractor, should gladden the heart of state Rep. Guillermina "Minnie" Gonzalez, D-Hartford.

Perez and Gonzalez have taunted and tormented each other over Democratic town committee primaries, legislative campaigns and municipal elections. They have been relentless rivals for power over the wreckage of Hartford. With his arrest this week, Perez began the final act of his political career.

Gonzalez would look like a winner merely for still standing after all that Perez has hurled at her. Sometimes, however, the mundane details of our lives intrude at the most inconvenient moments. Minnie's too busy to take a victory lap. She's battling the State Elections Enforcement Commission over a charge that she violated the law by assisting voters in casting absentee ballots in 2006.

With the publication of this column, Gonzalez will try to explain the thousands of dollars her political committee and re-election campaign have been paying her for years for "rent" at her house, according to records filed with the Elections Enforcement Commission during the past five years. Here's Gonzalez's routine: She would raise money for her re-election committee, though she might have no opponent. She'd give the surplus to her permanent political committee, Democrats for Change, which would pay Gonzalez $600 a month to rent space at her two-family home in Hartford.

Democrats for Change also pays about $200 for utilities each month. There's never much left for, well, political activities. This has been going on for the past several years, but Gonzalez may have to look for a new tenant. Her 2008 re-election campaign raised $5,694.33. Gonzalez won re-election by spending merely $444.25. That left a $5,250.08 surplus to refresh the coffers of her tenant, Democrats for Change, which she did, according to election commission filings on Dec. 2, 2008.

Ten days later, the committee paid Gonzalez $3,500 for "rent." It also covered a couple of hundred dollars for utility bills, which it has done monthly.

Gonzalez replied by telephone and in a written response to questions last week. She said Democrats for Change is a "3rd District Town Committee PAC." The space at her home is "rented for their use." They do buy stamps now and then, according to the reports. Gonzalez said Friday that she started renting to Democrats for Change after tenants damaged the property.

Gonzalez's Democrats for Change has received some contributions from some generous supporters. Ned and Ann Lamont each gave $1,000 in December 2007, as the PAC was running out of money to pay rent.

The Lamonts were too generous. Their contributions exceeded the limits set by law, according to Gonzalez, so the committee returned $250 to each a week later. The rent for a month was put off. Gonzalez is an understanding landlord. She knew she'd get paid.

The law plays its own tricks on manipulators. Gonzalez , who mentioned during a conversation on campaign finance on Friday that she was a welfare mother and is a cancer survivor, didn't take part in the state's new campaign public financing program in her 2008 campaign. Candidates who participated in it had to give their campaign surplus to the Citizens' Election Fund.

Candidates who didn't participate in public financing could give their campaign surplus to the fund or to a nonprofit organization established under certain Internal Revenue Service rules. Democrats for Change doesn't qualify. Nevertheless, Gonzalez handed over her surplus to the PAC so it could pay the rent. Prompted by questions for this column, Gonzalez has learned that from state officials that the law, which she called "confusing," does indeed ban moving a campaign surplus to a political committee. Someone's going to have to raise $3,500 and send it to a charity, she said.

Sen. Thomas Gaffey, D-Meriden, engaged in a pattern of abuse by submitting bills to the legislature for reimbursement of expenses paid by his PAC. Members of the Senate have been silent in the face of Gaffey's preposterous explanation that he leads a busy life and didn't notice the extra money in his paycheck.

It's not hard to figure out why Gaffey and Gonzalez want to get their hands on donations. What remains a mystery is why the Elections Enforcement Commission failed for so long to follow the trail in the finance reports.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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