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Bellis Decision In Favor Of Gomes: Political Party Conventions Must Be Deception Free

Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis. CT Post file photo.
Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis. CT Post file photo.

Last week Superior Court Judge Barbara Bellis overturned a decision by state election officials rejecting State Senator Ed Gomes’ application to challenge party-endorsed Dennis Bradley in an August 9 primary following a paperwork snafu. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill subsequently approved Gomes for the ballot following the judicial order. What follows is an excerpted transcript from the judge’s bench ruling in which she excoriates political operatives Ralph Ford and Ernie Newton, both of whom refute the judge’s criticism. Newton issued this statement to OIB: “The judge was overreaching. I supported Ed Gomes. My role was to open the meeting. For her to make it sound like it was some sort of plot is totally wrong. I’ve done what other temporary chairs were supposed to do. I feel like Ed threw me under the bus. I nominated and supported Ed. I’m going to reevaluate my support for Ed.” Gomes was represented by Chris Mattei and Bill Bloss from the Bridgeport-based law firm Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder. Grab a cup of joe and read.

The plaintiff, Edwin Gomes, is the incumbent elected state senator from the 23rd senate district.

Ernie Newton, who is a member of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee and very experienced in Bridgeport politics, was elected to Democratic State Central Committee in April 2016, and in light of his status on State Central was contacted by Nathan Wilson, the director of operations for the Democratic State Party, for assistance with the 23rd senate district convention, the purpose of which was to choose an endorsed candidate for the senate seat pursuant to statute.

Newton, as a member of State Central, was required under the Connecticut Democratic State Party rules which provide that the duties of the State Central Committee include carrying out, quote, “fully and adequately the decisions and instructions of the conventions,” end quote. Further, it requires its members, which would include Newton, to act as the liaison between state and local party officials and to assist within their local democratic party in the election of their candidates.

Additionally, Connecticut General Statute Section 9-382 requires that the convention conform with applicable law and with the rules of the party calling such convention; here, the Connecticut Democratic State Party rules.

Newton understood that he represented the party and was responsible for communications between the local and state parties. He and Wilson communicated regarding the 23rd senatorial convention which was scheduled for May 23, 2016, and the communications included a May 13, 2016 email from Wilson to Newton and other democratic leaders, and a May 20, 2016 email from Wilson to Newton asking Newton to get the convention materials to Ralph Ford, the temporary chair of the convention. Wilson reasonably expected Newton to assist him in disseminating the convention materials, and Newton, in fact, forwarded the May 20, 2016 email to Ralph Ford that same day.

Ford, a member of the Bridgeport Democratic Town Committee for two decades who had previously chaired a senatorial district convention, is a supporter of Dennis Bradley. Ford also supported Newton in Newton’s quest to go on the Democratic State Central position, and Ford and Newton have been political allies for decades.

Ford and a few others met with Gomes in the days prior to the convention in an effort to persuade Gomes not to run and to let Bradley run instead. Ford provided strategic advice to Bradley regarding the election and all of Ford’s delegates at the convention ended up supporting Bradley. The convention was opened by Newton by virtue of his position in State Central. Ford was voted permanent chair and Newton nominated Gomes, who did want to run. Fifty-four delegates were present at the convention. Thirty delegates voted in favor of Bradley and 24 delegates voted in favor of Gomes. The secretary of the convention, Nieves, is also a Bradley supporter. Ford voted for Bradley as well.

Bradley became the endorsed candidate, having received the majority of the votes. Bradley, an attorney, familiarized himself with the relevant statutes and rules and regulations, not surprising given his profession. The Court credits him for doing his due diligence, and the Court found that he was a credible, honest witness.

Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-388 required Bradley to file with the Secretary of State a certificate of endorsement cosigned by Ford or the secretary of the convention. That form was prepared for Bradley, and Ford, as convention chair, signed off on that form the very next day after the convention and the form was timely filed. Gomes, having received at least 15 percent of the vote, was eligible to run in a primary against Bradley. Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-400(b) required a certificate of eligibility to be filed by or on behalf of Gomes and signed by Gomes and either Ford or the convention secretary. The 15 percent certificate was intentionally not made available by the Secretary of State on the website, nor was it included in the packet of convention materials that Wilson had sent out on May 20, 2016.

However, on the day after the convention, Wilson sent Newton the 15 percent form instructing Newton that the 15 percent candidate would need to fill out the form and submit it to the Secretary of State. Newton, despite his duties and obligations under the Democratic State Party rules and Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-382, which duties continued after the actual convention, did not send the form to Gomes as the 15 percent candidate as requested, did not tell Wilson that he was not doing so, and did not tell Gomes about the form despite ample opportunity and an obligation to do so. He did forward the email chain to Ford. Ford received the email chain, which clearly referenced the 15 percent form.

I would also note that after this litigation commenced and after the deadline had passed, at Ford’s request, Newton immediately forwarded various emails and documents to Ford and then followed up with Ford to confirm that Ford in fact had received them.

Newton, instead of clearly telling Wilson that he would refuse to relay the 15 percent form or information to Gomes, immediately but vaguely replied to Wilson by telling Wilson to please call Ford. Wilson immediately called Ford, identifying himself and his position, asking Ford to return the call.

The Court finds that the voicemail message was left on Ford’s machine and that Ford did not return Wilson’s call. Ford knew that both the endorsed candidate and the 15 percent candidate had deadlines to file their respective required forms with the Secretary of State and he assisted and cooperated with Bradley in the filing of the form. Not only did Ford knowingly and intentionally fail to bring the 15 percent form or information to Gomes’ attention, he perpetrated a fraud on the Court by virtue of his inconsistent testimony regarding the documents he produced in response to the subpoena, his excising the damaging portions of the email chains by literally cutting them out with scissors, and by failing to produce the documents in response to a valid subpoena duces tecum.

The Court finds that Ford had received the emails, knew that the 15 percent form needed to be filed and intentionally attempted to mislead the Court with respect to the documents in his possession, and the Court finds that Ford’s testimony was inconsistent and unconvincing in its entirety.

Gomes himself did not take the steps that Bradley took to familiarize himself with the statutes that he needed to comply with. In 2012 when Gomes had qualified as a 15 percent candidate, the 15 percent form was filled out for him, given to him for his signature by the chair of that convention at the convention, and it was then filed for him. The convention chair for that 2012 convention had the form, filled it out, had Gomes sign it, and filed it for him. Similar to that experience was the experience of Marilyn Moore at another May 23, 2016 senatorial convention in Bridgeport. Her 15 percent certificate was timely filed after Wilson on May 24 sent the 15 percent form to Scott Burns, that convention chair, telling Burns, quote, if Marilyn Moore got 15 percent of the delegates to vote, you will also need to fill out, sign and send in, end quote, the 15 percent form.

Gomes – Gomes, having been aided by his party in the past and not having been informed about the form by Ford and Newton, was honestly mistaken in his understanding that no form was needed. Unlike his experience in 2012 and unlike the experiences of Bradley and Moore in 2016 where the party cooperated and assisted the candidates with the filing of the forms, here roadblocks were placed by Ford and Newton which prevented the information and the form from getting to him. Gomes intended to run, and if he had the cooperation and assistance of Ford and Newton, he certainly would have filed the form.

The Court notes that the Secretary of State website, while it does not make the 15 percent form available online in order to discourage false filings, tells candidates instead to, quote, consult with local party officials in order to determine how to qualify, end quote. The local party officials in this case would include Newton and Ford. The chief of staff for the Secretary of State sent, prior to the deadlines for the forms, repeated emails and communications to party officials regarding the deadline for the endorsed candidate form. Gomes, as a 15 percent candidate, did not receive any such communication.

Additionally, Ford and secretary Nieves did not comply with the Connecticut Democratic Party rules and, therefore, Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-382 as they did not send the certified list of the endorsed and 15 percent candidates to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State Central Committee. Both situations disadvantaged Gomes. The deadline for the 15 percent form was June 6, 2016. After the deadline passed, Gomes was informed by Vinny Mauro of the Office of State Democrats that he had missed the deadline. Gomes filed the form on June 16, 2016 and it was rejected as invalid, having not been timely filed.

The Court has carefully analyzed the election law in question, including Connecticut General Statutes Section 9-400. The Court believes that the meaning of the statutory language is plain and unambiguous. Unlike 9-388 for endorsed candidate forms which was amended in 2016 to add negative language, 9-400 for 15 percent forms does not contain the negative language that, quote, such certificate shall be invalid, end quote, and such party, quote, shall be deemed to have made no endorsement, end quote, if not timely filed.

The Court agrees with the Secretary of State, of course, that the language for the deadline for the endorsed candidate form under 9-388 is mandatory language, but finds that the 9-400{b) language evidences a directory intent. A statutory provision generally is considered directory if the requirement is unaccompanied by negative language. The Court also notes that despite other recent amendments, 9-400{b) was not amended to add the negative language I of 9-388.

Additionally, while the Court has found that the language at issue on 9-400 is directory and therefore the Secretary of State has discretion to accept the late filing, given the extraordinary circumstances in this particular case involving malfeasance by party officials, it would have been appropriate for the Court to reach the same result even if the language had been considered mandatory. The Court’s findings support the conclusion that Gomes’ name should be placed on the primary ballot for the 23rd state senate district and the Court invokes its equitable authority to do so. The plaintiff has met his burden of proving irreparable harm if not placed on the primary ballot as his candidacy and the will of those who voted for him would be aversely and irreparably affected. There is no other adequate remedy at law. The Court recognizes that this decision will impact Bradley but also finds that Bradley had begun his preparations to primary, and although this did impact his preparations, the equities clearly weigh in favor of Gomes. The Court, therefore, enters an order compelling the Secretary of State to place Gomes on the primary ballot for the 23rd state senate district.

I mentioned in my beginning comments that important rights are at stake here. This includes the constitutional right of freedom of association which includes not only the right to associate with the political party of your choice but also the right of a political party to identify the people who constitute the association and to select those who best represent the party’s ideologies. However, the Court must consider not only the interests of the voters, candidates, and political parties but also those of the legislature. In doing so, however, our law is well established that election laws are to be construed to allow for the greatest participation by the public, the candidates, and political parties.

In this case, where Ford did not competently and impartially perform the duties required of him as chairman of the convention pursuant to convention’s rules and statutes but instead engaged in political maneuvering in order to advance his own candidate, and where Newton as a member of State Central did not fulfill the obligations required of him by convention rules and statute, the failures mentioned worked to the detriment of Gomes, prevented him from receiving the benefit and assistance of his own party, and the Court finds that the conduct rises to the level of willful misconduct and malfeasance. Any failure on the part of Gomes was an innocent mistake compared to those acts, and the acts that I have mentioned violate any concept of fair play and fair and honest elections. The Secretary of State and the people of Connecticut have a right to expect that Democratic and Republican parties run their conventions properly in accordance with their party rules and statutes and have a right to have their will as voters reflected unaffected by deception or undue influence.