Secretary of the State Denise Merrill has been using her taxpayer-funded office to maintain a computerized list of names and email addresses of thousands of Democratic activists and campaign contributors — to whom she sends a monthly newsletter touting her accomplishments.
Her actions are reminiscent of widely condemned practices by her predecessor in the office, Susan Bysiewicz. Bysiewicz's campaign for state attorney general failed in 2010 amid a scandal over a politically tinged "constituent database" — which Bysiewicz maintained in her office and utilized to send a similar newsletter of her own.
State Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola called on Merrill Saturday to stop sending the newsletter, saying she is "using taxpayer resources and abusing her office for her own political gain." Labriola, reacting to Friday night's publication of this column on the website courant.com, said he may request an investigation into whether state laws or regulations have been violated.
Since June, Merrill — a Democrat who has preached "good government" since winning her $110,000-a-year job as the state's top elections official in 2010 — has been emailing a publication called "News From Denise Merrill, Secretary of the State" to more than 5,000 recipients each month.
Merrill, who is up for re-election next year although she hasn't declared her candidacy, says her newsletter is intended to keep her constituents informed.
But the list of recipients, obtained by the Courant through a public-records request, is densely packed with names of political donors and members of the state's Democratic establishment — the kind of people a candidate wants to stay in touch with in order to win renomination and to raise campaign funds.
Government Watch has found that:
•More than half the people on Merrill's newsletter list — upward of 2,800 — were members of Democratic town committees in 2010. A computer analysis found exact matches between email addresses on Merrill's list and those on a 2010 list kept by the state Democratic Party of local committee members.
•More than 150 recipients were Democratic town chairpersons.
•More than 350 recipients donated money to Merrill's 2010 campaign. More than 900 on the list didn't make political donations to Merrill's campaign, but donates to other candidates on the Democratic ticket in 2010, including now-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman and Comptroller Kevin Lembo.
•A computer review of state voter registration records determined the party affiliation of about 2,500 of those who receive Merrill's newsletter: 94 percent were Democrats, 2 percent were Republicans, and 4 percent were unaffiliated voters.
All of the above is consistent with a database that would be used by a candidate's election committee, possibly Merrill's 2010 campaign committee for Secretary of the State in 2010.
When The Courant asked Merrill Friday if that's where the list came from, she declined to answer.
Most of the names were sent to Merrill's office in April from the personal email account of Shannon Wegele, Merrill's $97,850-a-year chief of staff. Wegele assisted with Merrill's 2010 campaign, and previously had been an aide on her staff in the state legislature, where Merrill served as House majority leader.
Emails released to The Courant show that on April 26, Wegele sent an electronic attachment of about 5,000 names and email addresses from her personal Gmail account to the office's communications director, Av Harris. Later emails included further instructions from Wegele concerning use of the list to launch the new email newsletter.
Merrill, who is typically available to the press, declined to talk to The Courant Friday and instead responded to questions in a written statement relayed through Harris. As to the origin of the list, Merrill's statement said:
"The initial list of our e-newsletter recipients includes people I have known personally for a long time throughout my career in public service. Since then we have also added other groups of people to the list as well, people of varying political affiliations who have been involved in programs we have run so far in my term as Secretary of the State. As we continue to build the list I'm sure it will reflect the political and geographical diversity of those interested in the mission of this office."
The list includes prominent Democratic names from Gov. Malloy down to the 2,800 lesser-known members of local town committees in 2010. There's Democratic state party chair Nancy DiNardo. There are also influential Democratic figures such as Roy Occhiogrosso — Malloy's 2010 campaign strategist, later senior adviser on the governor's staff, and now a political and communications consultant. Democratic state legislators, along with labor union activists, and Capitol lobbyists, also are on the list.
Merrill's statement also said she has "travelled all over Connecticut talking to people of numerous different backgrounds and political affiliations about the importance of becoming civically engaged, and I have highlighted the many new initiatives I have launched during the last three years." She said people "have asked me to inform them from time to time what we are up to at the Secretary of the State's office, and that is the purpose of this electronic newsletter. I view communicating with the people I represent … as an essential part of my job."