Ex-State Rep. Vickie Orsini Nardello, D-Prospect, claims in a lawsuit that bungling by Democratic Secretary of the State Denise Merrill's office has deprived her of running in a 16th State Senate District primary that she qualified for at a convention in May.
Nardello says two Merrill subordinates told her two different things early this month: one, that a technical problem with her primary eligibility form (she’d failed to write “16” in the “Senatorial District” space) had been “resolved” and she was “all set”; and the other that “we are unable to accept your certificate of eligibility” and it’s too late to submit one that’s filled in correctly.
That second statement is the one that has stuck.
“There can be no doubt that denying Nardello access to the ballot is a harsh and irreversible step that does violence to basic democratic principles,” her attorney, William Bloss, said in a legal memo filed as part of the June 11 lawsuit he filed in Waterbury Superior Court.
He’s seeking a court order compelling Merrill to place Nardello’s name on the Aug. 14 primary ballot, based on her receiving 42 percent of the delegate vote (easily more than the required 15 percent) at a May 21 Democratic convention. He says she’s won the right to challenge party-endorsed Dagmara Scalise for the nomination to the Senate seat that incumbent Republican Joe Markley is vacating to run for lieutenant governor.
Merrill’s communication director, Gabe Rosenberg, said Wednesday that he “can’t comment on the specifics” of the suit “as this matter is currently the subject of litigation and the facts are being gathered by our counsel in the Office of the Attorney General.” He added, though, that “the complaint contains allegations and assumptions that are not rooted in facts as we understand them at this time, and will be addressed” by the AG’s office.
A hearing is scheduled June 25 in Waterbury in the unusual case that pits Democrat against Democrat — as Merrill seeks election to her third four-year term as Connecticut’s top official in charge of the conduct of elections.
The suit, first mentioned in Courant columnist Kevin Rennie’s Daily Ructions blog, names Merrill as the defendant and claims that:
- Merrill's chief of staff — Shannon Wegele, although the suit only refers to her by title — said in a June 1 email that Nardello had left the “Senatorial District” space blank on the form verifying she’d received the required 15 percent of delegates’ votes.
- “Vickie: Attached is your form. Looks like we didn’t have the district number filled in but that’s been resolved. You’re all set,” Wegele said in the email.
- The next day, June 2, Merrill’s office sent a copy of the form, and “Nardello discovered that the Secretary of the State’s office had indeed filled in the blank … but [with] the wrong district” — 15, rather than 16.
- Nardello says that she immediately texted Wegele to say “I am running in the 16th senatorial as the primary challenger not the 15th,” and asked “if I have to do anything or if this can be taken care of by your office. Sorry for all the confusion.”
- Nardello told Wegele by phone on June 2 that she was willing to travel to Hartford and file a new form with the proper district number, but “was advised that there was no need to do so. Nardello responded by text on the [s]ame date at 4:42 p.m. ‘thank you.’ Nardello did not travel to Hartford to re-file the form with the proper Senate district” — because, the suit says, she was relying on the “express statements” of Merrill’s office. This was two days before the June 4 deadline for filing the primary eligibility form.
- On June 5, after the deadline had passed, a staff attorney in Merrill’s office — Theodore Bromley, although the suit doesn’t name him — “informed Nardello by an emailed letter that the Secretary of the State rejected the Certificate of Eligibility solely on the ground that it was not ‘completed and filed’ by June 4, 2018.”
- “That letter incorrectly stated that ‘[o]n June 5, 2018, you or your representative attempted to change the certificate from ‘Senatorial District 15’ to 'Senatorial District 16’, the correct district …’ In fact, neither the plaintiff nor anyone under her direction attempted to change the certificate; there was no need for her to do so given that on June 2 … the chief of staff ... advised her, ‘I’ll fix it. No problem’, and Nardello had no reason to suspect otherwise."
Bromley’s June 5 letter to Nardello, released in response to a Courant request, contradicts that last assertion, as to both timing and who entered 15 instead of 16 as the district number.
Bromley wrote that after Nardello was informed that she’d left the district-number space blank, “on or about May 30, 2018, you or your representative appeared in our office and entered ‘Senatorial District 15’” on the form.
He added that on June 5, Nardello “or your representative attempted to change the certificate” from Senatorial District 15 to District 16, but “unfortunately, we regret to inform you” that “your name cannot be placed on the ballot.”
Bromley said Nardello can still collect petition signatures to get on the ballot. But Bloss said in the lawsuit that petitioning is not a “reasonable alternative due to lack of time, including lost time due to the errors of the Secretary of the State.”
Although the eligibility form didn’t have the district number filled in when Nardello first submitted it May 25, Bloss said that “it did contain identifying information showing the residence of the candidate and the location of the convention within the 16th Senate District.” It was also signed by the presiding officer of the convention.
Bloss also said the eligibility form “does not advise that a missing district number” will render it invalid "when all other identifying information is present.”
Nardello served nine terms in the House before losing in the 2012 election to now-Rep. Lesley Zupkus — who defeated her again in 2014 when she tried to regain her former seat. Republicans have endorsed Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, as their candidate for the 16th Senate District seat that Markley is vacating.
This isn’t the first controversy of Merrill’s tenure. In 2013, she issued an apology for using her taxpayer-funded office to email monthly newsletters touting her achievements to thousands of Democratic activists and campaign contributors. The year before that, she was criticized for putting her face on highway billboards in a state-funded campaign encouraging voter participation.
And in 2015, The Courant reported that despite her repeated denials, Merrill had participated in a 2011 inquiry by her office that concluded with a decision to let Bridgeport Democratic Party official Mitchell Robles continue acting as a notary public even though he failed to list drug convictions on five notary applications since 1988.
Merrill had said for months that her staff handles all investigations of Connecticut's 55,000 notaries, and that this one was routine, with politics playing no part — but then the newspaper disclosed that Robles' stepson, state Rep. Ezequiel Santiago, D-Bridgeport, had contacted Merrill during the probe, and hours later emails were released showing Merrill's involvement.
She asked an aide in a mid-2011 email to discuss the case with her in person rather than "memorialize anything in print." In other emails, two staffers claimed someone had "pulled the plug" on the probe and told them to "back off." Merrill said afterward: "In looking at this matter when you first asked me about it, I unfortunately did not look as thoroughly into the matter as I should have.”
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.
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