UPDATE 2-26-12: I learned Irene Barrack (NCRTC Secretary) said the committee is getting calls from concerned State Legislators since this story came out. Given the NCRTC is now scrambling to make sure other Republican in-kind donations didn’t go over the $1,000 individual per year limit it makes sense State Reps would be a little worried. It is expected the NCRTC, who is suddenly more aware of campaign finance law, will be writing more checks this week to Republican supporters like Elizabeth DeLuca who gave a little too much between tickets for the 2011 fundraising dinner and campaign posters for town elections.
New Canaan’s RTC has blown through cash at the direction of its Chairman, James T. O’Hora, leaving local Republican coffers under budget for fundraising during the 2012 election year. O’Hora who took over Chairmanship in 2010, when Wall Street banker John Ponterotto didn’t want to run again, has used donated funds in ways that lead to serious infighting within the RTC and violations of campaign finance law.
According to a RTC budget report prepared last week by NCRTC treasurer, Roy Abramowitz, there is only $6,122, left in the committee’s bank account for 2012 campaign activities. In the last two years under O’Hora’s leadership eCRIS records show the RTC has spent $80,421 of donated Republican funds; almost double the dollars spent by sister cities Darien and Greenwich. New Canaan’s fundraising powers are one of the strongest among statewide RTC’s so the amount of greenbacks they can shell out to support local Republican officials is often in the $30-$40k range per year. The problem is how cash was spent shows waste and possible personal political gain for James O’Hora.
Image is important for this New Canaan chairman who made sure to set the stage at the beginning of his 2010 leadership. O’Hora used RTC funds to buy a gavel with special RTC Chairman engraving for $95.40. A tool RTC members I spoke with say he uses religiously anytime someone disagrees with him. Long time RTC Secretary Irene Barrack says, “Well his dog ate the handle but yes James still likes to use his gavel.” The State GOP website shows most RTC chairs use their personal email address for Republicans to contact them but at the start of O’Hora’s reign he set up a new email firstname.lastname@example.org in an apparent move to remind people of his new title. Prior NCRTC Chairs didn’t use this type of email. Expense records also show O’Hora felt he needed personalized stationary. Lined envelopes and monogrammed cards with ‘James T. O’Hora’ were purchased from New Canaan’s Milestones for $137.80. His RTC title isn’t listed on the stationary so it could also be used for non committee business.
“O’Hora has used RTC money as his own political piggy bank,” says RTC Treasurer Roy Abramowitz.
Another RTC member who didn’t run in 2012 said, “O’Hora is so untrustworthy. If we were standing in front of a car and he said it was Red I wouldn’t believe him.”
New Canaan RTC Treasurer Abramowitz explained there was usually a group vote on how expenditures were made but O’Hora slipped in a $478.58 bill for a high-end photographer to take professional touched-up photos of Republicans that won elections in 2011. In the past the RTC has used a volunteer photographer, taken photos off a member’s cell phone camera for newspaper stories, or a reporter has taken the photo. In fact, Abramowitz says they had a volunteer photographer in 2011 (who also received a $100 gift certificate to Pine Social) so he refused to pay the bill because he felt it was an excess cost and not board approved. Eventually after repeated pressure from other RTC members and O’Hora he folded and paid the bill in January. New Canaan’s DTC chair Ginny Apy says they don’t pay for newspaper photographers because they use volunteers.
Interviews with past NCRTC members and chairmen show the committee’s mission is to fund local Republicans running for town office and state congressional people in nearby Fairfield County towns but not campaigns for Hartford officials. O’Hora changed that. eCRIS records show he directed the RTC to give $2,000 for Tom Foley’s Governorship campaign and $1,000 for Martha Dean’s Attorney General race.
Abramowitz says, “There were disagreements about these donations but I guess O’Hora wanted to use the funds to get into gold platted political dinners.”
Dinners are prime fundraising tool for Fairfield County Republicans but at the NCRTC’s own Lincoln dinner last year O’Hora only paid $125 for his dinner seat and his wife ate free. Lincoln dinner invites list O’Hora as a Patron donor, which required a $250 per person donation. Abramowitz says O’Hora begged the dinner planners to put his name under the Patron donor because it would look odd if he didn’t give more.
James O’Hora didn’t return a request for comment about his NCRTC spending.
Under, John Ponterotto’s NCRTC leadership the local Republicans raised $25,906 at their Lincoln dinner–a hefty number that built up the coffers for O’Hora’s budget. In the following year O’Hora raised $11,741 but RTC records show the dinner planning cost of around $17,000 remained the same. The RTC secretary said in an interview on February 19th the 2012 Lincoln dinner still doesn’t have a speaker planed or date set. With only $6,100 in the budget it looks like a few wealthy Republicans will have to give the RTC a loan just to get the dinner deposit expenses taken care off. Unfortunately, loans are an in-kind contributions that are limited to $1,000 per person per calendar year.
The use of dollars for ads was also hotly contest at NCRTC meetings. Hersam, the town treasurer, owns the New Canaan Advertiser and has the largest New Canaan circulation. Under O’Hora’s reign $8370 was spent on Advertiser ads. The Hearst owned newspaper, New Canaan News, got $3700 and the AOL online paper Patch only received $450. Full page 4-color ads of local candidates ran but often it was an expense made after the New Canaan Republicans had already won the RTC caucus and didn’t have a democratic challenger.
State GOP executive Bob Lutts told me, “I don’t understood why post-election ads were running and post-election photos were paid for when these New Canaan Republicans had already won. A better use of funds could have been supporting town Republicans in cities with smaller budgets who had serious Democratic contenders.”
A review of O’Hora’s RTC expenses with the GOP’s Lutts showed one alarming campaign finance violation. In the fall of 2010, NCRTC member Christine Ross secured a prime piece of town real estate for campaign office space. Residential builder Dinyar Wadia gave them his empty store front which now houses the high-end restaurant The Tuscan. The over 4,000 sq foot space was advertised for around $56 per sq ft according to a real estate broker I interviewed in 2010 but Wadia the devoted Republican offered the lux space for free. Down the street, in a dumpy smaller retail space, the DTC was forced to pay $4,000 for their campaign headquarters. According to Lutts and state committee spending rules Town Committees have to pay full market rates for campaign space. A slight discount is allowed if the space has been vacant for a while.
“Getting free space is a campaign finance violation with a maximum penalty of twice the amount of the violation,” says Lutts. “The violation is the difference between what they paid and what they should have paid for fair market rent.” The NCRTC had the expensive space for two and half months. Now in-kind donations can be used but the cap is $1,000 and it has to be done by an individual. The retail space the RTC used is owned by a llc – a business cannot make in-kind donations.
O’Hora eventually went to his RTC members and said the NCDTC was complaining about their fancy free space. So some members of the RTC, like Christina Ross, told Abramowitz he should pay Wadia’s property management company John Street Properties $2,000. Records show in January 2011 Wadia’s company got $2000 in NCRTC funds. O’Hora also encouraged some NCRTC members like Barrack and Abramowitz to give a few hundred dollars to Wadia’s favorite charity, Gran Seva, which helps children in India. Still Abramowitz told me no in-kind donation was ever listed for Wadia and he was told by O’Hora and Christina Ross this was a legitimate way to pay for the campaign space. Unfortunately he’s admitted while I was researching this story he learned it wasn’t.
Abramowitz, a seasoned CPA, was O’Hora’s thorn in the side because he consistently tried to push back on what he thought was wasteful spending. He says Christina Ross even voiced the committee should impeach him as treasurer because of his budget push back. Ross didn’t return an email for comment.
“State law shows the treasurer is ultimately the only person who can sign for RTC funds to be released,” says Lutts. “I know of one RTC treasurer who stood up to his whole town committee and flat-out refused to make certain payments.” Twelve members from last year’s New Canaan RTC quit; perhaps they should have stood up and tried to slow down O’Hora piggy bank raid.
New Canaan Republican donors who want to see other ways O’Hora’s RTC spent your money can been seen at www.seec.ct.gov. The eCRIS database list all SEEC20 forms RTC treasurers are required to file. There is even more questionable expenses like the $1,450 spent on name checkers for this summer’s two early voting sessions; a role past RTC’s have always been able to get volunteers for. Along with a few hundred bucks for off-duty NCPD to watch voters roll into town hall.
March 12th is the date the newly elected New Canaan RTC takes office. The vote for their Chairperson, Secretary, Treasure, and Vice-Chair will be interesting to see. Abramowitz, who will be leaving his Treasure position because he was voted out of the RTC, has already sent emails this month calling for the need to “Impeach O’Hora”. So far Abramowitz emails appear to have fallen on deaf ears.
UPDATE 2-25-12: The New Canaan RTC appears eager to erase Roy Abramowitz from his executive role of RTC Treasure. The NCTRC website suddenly doesn’t list Abramowitz as Treasure although he is officially in the job till March 12th and still is the only person with signatory power on their bank account. Funny thing is the web editor they hired to make changes can’t get a paid unless Abramowitz signs off.
8:00pm – Abramowitz, as Treasure, got the web designer to adjust the NCRTC member list page. I learned the request was made to take his name/title off the RTC website on 2-21-12 after the NCRTC Chairman and Secretary knew I was working on this story. According to Abramowitz, this request was made without executive committee approval.
Additionally, it appears in anticipation of this story coming out the RTC has now come up with a date for the Lincoln Dinner – April 13th. House Majority Leader Lawrence Cafero will be the guest speaker. It will be interesting to see how the New Canaan Republicans come up with the dollars in the next month to pay the New Canaan Country Club their expensive catering fees.
Editors Note: I’d like to thank members of the State’s GOP for helping me fact check this story.