Watchdog agencies say mail lists compiled by legislators fair game for campaigns

Email lists compiled by legislators are fair game for political campaigns, two watchdog agencies have said in recent rulings.

The Freedom of Information Commission ruled in April that then Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, violated the state’s FOI Act when she failed to comply with a request to turn over constituents’ email addresses to a Meriden resident and supporter of Len Suzio, the Republican who defeated Bartolomeo in November.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission, meanwhile, dismissed a complaint against Sen. Art Linares, R-Westbrook, saying state law doesn’t forbid candidates from using any information they obtain lawfully through FOI requests in campaigns.

Bartolomeo was one of four state senators to receive an FOI request for constituent email addresses last summer. The other three received requests from their own campaigns.

Bartolomeo’s office was also the only one to deny the request and withhold the emails, prompting a complaint from Anna Neumon, a Republican from Meriden who made the request on behalf of Suzio.

“I went ahead with the whole thing because of the principal of it,” Neumon said of her complaint.

Bartolomeo said she withheld the list because her understanding was that email addresses for constituents communicating with her office were exempt from public disclosure.

The FOI Commission ruled that the exemption only applies to emails sent to a legislator on specific legislation, and Neumon requested the list of addresses Bartolomeo’s staff had compiled for a newsletter.

Bartolomeo, and the attorney that represented her during a March hearing, also argued that the email list should be exempt because of concerns that Neumon intended to use the information to help Suzio’s campaign.

The commission said the intent of the requester isn’t an exemption under the FOI Act and thus isn’t grounds to deny a request.

Neumon also criticized the argument, saying the “game was played because of the assumption of who I was and what I wanted to do with” the list.

Bartolomeo said her decision to deny the request was meant to protect constituents who communicated with her office under the assumption that the information would never get shared.

“If that’s the way it is currently being looked at, everyone should be aware of this,” she said. Bartolomeo also said she was always led to believe that the email lists were off limits for campaigns.

“I think it’s always been a gray area, and quite frankly it needs to be cleared up,” she said.

Separately, the SEEC dismissed a complaint against Linares in which his opponent argued his campaign violated state election laws by requesting and obtaining a similar email list.

The complaint alleges that the lists are generated with public resources, and thus can’t be used for election purposes. The commission ruled in April, though, that any record obtained under the FOI act can be used by a campaign.

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