By Dave Moran
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.