Published August 17. 2013 4:00AM Updated August 17. 2013 12:24PM
New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio has insisted he had no conversations with police the day of a rape that has caused controversy in the city. But a check of phone records shows the mayor used his city-owned cell phone to call Police Chief Margaret Ackley at 9:45 a.m. July 20, just a few hours after the alleged early-morning assault. The records show a three-minute exchange. A return call from the chief's number came at 9:49 a.m. for seven minutes. Editor's note. This corrects an earler version of this sentence.
July 20 was the mayor's 36th birthday.
Mayor Finizio said he has no recollection of the calls and that they are not found on his phone.
It took several days for the police administration to acknowledge the sexual assault that took place in an alley off Bank Street. Some have questioned whether the mayor, vulnerable on the public safety issue due to cuts in police staffing, tried to suppress information about the troubling incident.
The mayor has called the charge outrageous and unfounded. He said again Friday he did not learn of the incident until a couple of days later and is sure it was not the subject of his exchange with the chief.
News of the phone call also caused Chief Ackley to break her silence. She told me Friday that the mayor never instructed her or the department to withhold information about the incident.
"It did not happen," she said.
Chief Ackley could not recall the nature of the July 20 conversation, but said she will review her notes
There is an internal police investigation into the handling of the matter and whether communication to the press and public should have been handled differently, Finizio said. The review will also look at leaks to news sources, apparently coming from within the department, concerning the rape investigation, he said. He suspects the motivation for the leaks is political and to gain leverage in union negotiations.
Word of the phone call will likely only fuel criticism of the administration's handling of the matter and of public safety. Even though Mayor Finizio is not up for re-election this year, the Republican strategy is clear - attack him and damage the Democratic brand in hopes of winning council seats.
The ranks of the New London Police Department have seen a dramatic decrease in staffing from the high 90s a few years ago to the 60s today. The exodus appears driven by a combination of morale issues in the department and fears of layoffs generated by the city's fiscal problems.
In their crusade for beefed up public safety, the mayor's critics have a ready ally in the ranks of the union leadership, now in contract negotiations with the administration.
In an Aug. 15 letter to The Day, Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran contended "New London is in crisis" and "public safety is declining, promoting increased criminal activity." A Democrat, Friess-McSparran failed to win her party's nomination and is instead running for re-election on the Republican ticket.
Finizio fired back at his critics and accused them of putting politics above New London's welfare.
"The police union and some members of council, particularly Councilor Friess-McSparran, are politicizing public safety. They are actively working to spread untruths and to exacerbate any criminal incident that occurs in the city to create what the council member said in ... in her letter to The Day, 'We're in a crisis.' No we're not," Finizio said.
"I know they've got their political games that they're playing, but how is that helping New London when you're tearing down the public image of the city with no factual basis ..."
"They are harming all our small businesses, they're harming morale in the department, they are not making the situation better over there. To what end? You might get re-elected to the City Council. You might get a nickel's more advantage in a contract debate? I think it's shameful."
The mayor contends that criminal activity is down in the city.
"We're on track of having one of our safer years in New London in many, many years," Finizio said.
It appears New London is in for a tough local election. Raising concerns about public safety and police staffing are legitimate campaign tactics, using alarmism to gin up votes is not. On the other hand, denying phone calls and then having them show up in the record doesn't look well for the mayor.
Even as summer wanes, in New London politics I suspect things are only going to get hotter.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor of The Day .