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Stuffing the letters-to-the-editor box? Marpe admits campaign scripted endorsement letters

Updated 8:55 pm, Thursday, October 17, 2013
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The campaign of Republican first selectman candidate Jim Marpe conceded Wednesday its own staff has written letters endorsing Marpe, which its supporters then have put their own names on and submitted to local news outlets.

The Marpe campaign also said it routinely reviews and revises endorsement letters to its liking, then returns them to supporters for submission as letters to the editor.

The issue came to light earlier this week when the Westport News questioned the authenticity of a letter endorsing Marpe, and the local businessman who submitted it said it was written not by him, but by Republican Dewey Loselle, a Representative Town Meeting member and a Marpe campaign lieutenant.

Westport News Editor Jim Doody called the practice "highly deceptive" and said it corrupts the integrity of the letters columns. It has been the newspaper's policy not to publish any election letter if it is known to have been written by a campaign, but signed by an individual citizen, or if a campaign has revised the letter, he said.

Marpe on Wednesday said there was "no deception" and called the ghost-writing of endorsement letters "common practice."

"I know it's common practice in campaigns -- as long as I can remember -- to provide assistance to those who request it," he said.

Marpe said some individuals will "ask us to help them draft a letter, but in all cases the letters represent the person."

Others in Marpe's campaign also called the practice common, but when asked to name other candidates who do it, they were silent.

Marpe's Democratic challenger, Helen Garten, declined comment on the matter.

But Jim Ezzes, Democratic Town Committee chairman, said while Marpe and Loselle consider it common practice, "that's not our style."

"We have never done that," Ezzes said. "Democrats are very verbal and very literate," he said. "If someone is passionate about a candidate, they do it on their own," he said about writing an endorsement letter to the editor.

Ezzes said supporters ask how they can help with the campaign. "We tell them we have an active phone bank," he said. And if they feel strongly about a certain issue, we tell them "feel free to write" a letter to the editor about it.

"But we don't tell them what to write," he said.

Doody said the prospect of campaigns handling letters before they are submitted "casts a shadow of doubt" over the authenticity of all endorsement letters." Because of that and what he called "a runaway volume" of letters, the Westport News will no longer print every letter.

Beginning with today's edition, he said, the paper will print a "representative sampling" of endorsement letters submitted in the preceding week.

Jim Simon, founder of Fairfield University's journalism program and associate dean of its college of arts and sciences, said "no one should be shocked" that campaigns are ghost-writing campaign letters.

He said newspapers should make sure its letters to the editor are accurate, and if it knows a letter was not written by the person who signed it, the paper shouldn't run it.

"They can't be blindly printing things," he said.

Loselle, who coordinates letter-writing for Marpe's campaign, said he wrote "a couple" of endorsement letters for supporters, but could not say exactly how many. He also said he could not quantify how many letters he had revised before they were sent to editors.

"Some people have less letter-writing skills," Loselle said. Others, he said, ask about the style or length of the letter.

The Westport News has published its campaign letters policy -- including length and other requirements and how to submit them -- in every print edition since August and also has frequently posted the policy on its website.

In addition to the Westport News, the Marpe campaign instructs supporters to send letters to the Westport Minuteman and the online sites Westport Patch and Westport Daily Voice.

The businessman whose submission brought the issue to light, local retailer Bill Mitchell, said Marpe personally arranged to have Loselle write the letter and introduced them.

In an interview Wednesday, Mitchell said there was nothing improper about putting his name on a letter written by the Marpe campaign, and he likened it to presidents and other officials using speech writers.

Mitchell said the letter he submitted to the Westport News was "99 percent" written by Loselle, but that he "100 percent agreed with it."

He said Marpe visited his store and asked him to write a letter of support. Mitchell said he asked Marpe to "have one of your people script something for me."

Bob Zappi, who is managing the campaign for Marpe and selectman candidate Avi Kaner, said hundreds of their supporters have never endorsed a candidate before.

"When they ask for advice, we suggest that they simply write of personal experiences with the candidate," he said, "Sometimes they ask for another set of eyes to provide feedback before it is submitted to the newspaper editors."