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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Statute a sticking point for Dickinson dinner

By Dave Moran
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

As published in the Record Journal Friday January 22, 2010

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WALLINGFORD— Would a $40­per-ticket dinner to honor Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s 26 years of service violate a state law that pro­hibits testimonials for elected offi­cials while they hold office?

It depends whether you ask a De­mocrat or a Republican.

And with the two parties contest­ing the issue, it may come down to the state Elections Enforcement Commission deciding whether to levy fines if the Feb. 6 dinner is held. Democratic Town Chairman Vin­cent Avallone sent a letter to Republi­can Town Chairman Robert Prentice on Wednesday, advising him of Connecticut General Statute 9-609(b).

The statute, a copy of which was included with Avallone’s letter, says in part: “No testimonial affair shall be held for a candidate, or for an indi­vidual who holds any such office dur­ing the term of such office, except to raise funds on his behalf for purposes authorized in this chapter. A testimo­nial affair which is held by an organi­zation duly organized for charitable purposes shall be exempt from the provisions of this chapter.”

Avallone, an attorney with a local practice, said his intention was not to intimidate Prentice into cancelling the event, to be held at the Villa Capri on North Colony Road, but merely to make him aware of a potential viola­tion of state law if it is held.

“I’ve made the chairman of the party aware of this statute and that, I believe, if it goes on it will be a viola­tion,” Avallone said. “There’s no threatening tone in it. It’s just a cour­tesy extended to Mr. Prentice.”

Avallone said he had spoken with state elections officials earlier in the week, and after the conversation he said he felt comfortable that his inter­pretation of the statute was correct.

“I discussed it” with the officials, he said. “I stated that I thought that this constituted a violation, and noth­ing that was said discouraged me and made me feel that my interpretation was wrong.”

Nancy Nicolescu, a spokeswoman for the commission, confirmed Thursday that Avallone did call the agency earlier in the week, but said policy prohibited her from comment­ing on specific situations.

“I can acknowledge that we re­ceived an inquiry; however, a complaint has not been filed,” Nicolescu said. “We don’t comment on third­ party activities.”

Avallone, who has served as Demo­cratic chairman since early 2008, denied having a political motive in sending the letter, but some of the event’s organizers, all of them Republicans, disagreed. Dickinson is a Republican.

“I think it’s sour grapes,” said Rosemary Rascati, a Republican town councilor and dinner or­ganizer. “I’m not happy be­cause I think this is being done deliberately. If you don’t want to come to a party, then don’t come, but to try and throw a monkey wrench into some­thing as innocent as a party” is­n’t right.

She noted that when local Democrats organized a retire­ment party for Iris Papale, a De­mocrat who left the council at the beginning of 2008 after more than 30 years, no Repub­licans kicked up a similar fuss. The statute, however, lists re­tirement dinners as an excep­tion.

Prentice, one of the organiz­ers, said Thursday he had not received Avallone’s letter and could not comment on it specifically, but that the party would likely go on because of the has­sle associated with cancelling. “It would be very difficult to do that. Plus, the money we put out to Villa Capri already for down payments, that’s money out of our own personal pock­ets,” he said. “We got 200-plus tickets sold. You know what? We’ll go through with it be­cause what are they going to do to us, fine us?”

Nicolescu said the potential fine, if a complaint were filed, would be $2,000 per offense against any person the com­mission finds to be in violation, or twice the amount of any im­proper payment or political contribution, whichever is greater.

However Craig Fishbein, a Republican councilor and local attorney, said he had reviewed Avallone’s letter Thursday and the statute and does not think the event constitutes a viola­tion. He said that since the din­ner was organized by individ­uals, it was the equivalent of throwing a birthday party.

“I feel comfortable that his in­terpretation of the statute is wrong, based upon the fact that it is my understanding that there is no money going to Bill Dickinson,” Fishbein said. “Any money left over from this din­ner is going to the Wallingford Foundation for the Arts, so that totally exempts it from the statute. ... Let’s say the Walling­ford Foundation for the Arts has a fundraiser and he was their guest of honor. Is that any dif­ferent?”

The event organizers, about a half dozen local Republicans, have said that any profits left af­ter all costs are paid will be do­nated to the arts group.

But Avallone is sticking to his guns.

“This is the situation: If it’s against the law, they shouldn’t do it. Whether he’s been there for 25 years — people may think he’s the greatest guy in the world — the mayor’s sub­ject to the law just like everyone else,” Avallone said.

Dickinson was sworn in for his 14th consecutive term ear­lier this month and is the sec­ond longest-serving mayor in the state, behind only Prospect’s Robert Chatfield.

A copy of Avallone’s letter was faxed to his office Thurs­day afternoon by a reporter, but by the close of the business day Dickinson, who is an attorney, said he had not had time to re­view it, was unfamiliar with the situation and could not comment.

Dickinson said last week that he was not too enthusiastic about the dinner.

“I guess I’m a reluctant par­ticipant,” he said.

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