The State Elections Enforcement Commission on Feb. 15 rejected allegations filed by New Haven City Clerk Michael Smart that Deputy City Clerk Sally Brown had knowingly signed a number of official documents, including those pertaining to the presidential primary election last April.
The ruling comes just over six months after Smart sent a complaint to the Office of the Secretary of the State in August, which led the SEEC to launch an investigation into the matter in October. Smart had placed Brown on indefinite paid leave in late April, citing his office’s investigation into Brown’s unlawful conduct. But the SEEC’s February ruling found that Smart lacked the grounds to move forward with an investigation into Smart’s allegations.
“Ms. Brown as New Haven deputy city town clerk did not violate election laws as alleged,” Salvatore Bramante, SEEC vice chairman, wrote in the ruling.
The SEEC found that Brown “reasonably believed” from her experience that her actions were in accordance with her position as deputy city clerk. At the root of the dispute is the fact that the city clerk position to which Smart was elected in 2013 has long been a part-time position. The deputy in the office is, by the wording of the city’s job description, responsible for “the day-by-day operations of the [city clerk’s] office,” according to the SEEC ruling. Yet Smart supposedly requested that all matters requiring his signature gain his approval before enacted. Brown had also served as the elected city clerk from 1986 until 1995, when she was appointed to the deputy position by then-Mayor John DeStefano.
Smart’s allegations caused conflict within the city bureaucracy when the city’s deputy legal counsel, Christopher Neary, sent a letter on Sept. 13 urging Smart to reinstate Brown and threatening to withhold the city’s legal support if he did not. Despite the letter, Smart did not reinstate Brown.
Instead, Smart asked the Board of Alders in November to transfer $15,000 in city funds to his office for the purpose of hiring outside legal service, although at the time he faced no litigation. The board approved the transfer in January.
Asked where the funds would go if not used toward litigation by the end of the fiscal year, Smart told the board’s financial committee that they would be used to balance the city budget, according to the Board of Alders’ minutes.
But despite the state’s recent ruling to dismiss Smart’s claims, it is unclear whether the dispute will fade or continue and whether these funds will be used for the reason requested. Smart has not walked back his allegations, according to the New Haven Independent.
He said shortly after the ruling that upon her return to the office, Brown will still face a disciplinary hearing in his office this Friday.
“Sally’s going to get a letter to return to work,” Smart said after the ruling, according to the New Haven Independent. “There will be a disciplinary hearing to answer the charges.”
It is unclear what charges specifically that hearing will address, now that the state has dispelled Smart’s allegations.
City spokesman Laurence Grotheer said Smart should likely abide by the SEEC’s ruling, as Smart’s office is administered by an elected official and thus accountable to the city’s electorate.
“The city town clerk’s office is administered by an independently elected official, who is accountable to the city’s electorate,” Grotheer said. “In this matter regarding the deputy in that office and her reinstatement, it would appear the city town clerk is also accountable to the State Elections Enforcement Commission.”
In his complaint to the state in August, Smart said Brown knowingly circumvented his authority on multiple occasions by signing documents related to both the 2016 presidential election as well as elections in 2015 and 2014 without his approval.
“Ms. Brown did sign and approve official documents, misrepresenting her authority as if she were in fact the municipal clerk on multiple occasions on a variety of documents,” the complaint read. “Brown then deliberately withheld information from the municipal clerk, in attempting to conceal and cover up her unilateral and unauthorized actions.”
But Brown flatly denied the allegations, and her lawyer, John Gesmonde, told the News in October that the allegations were inaccurate and unfounded.
He said Brown’s job description, which charges her with the daily running of the clerk’s office, was sufficient evidence to disprove Smart’s allegations. He also pointed to Neary’s letter as an “extremely compelling” reason to drop the claims.
The SEEC was founded in 1974.