FBI arrests Chris Donovan's congressional fundraiser
FBI arrests Chris Donovan's congressional fundraiser
Thursday, May 31, 2012
The finance director for House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan's congressional campaign was arrested Wednesday by FBI agents and charged with illegally concealing the source of two $10,000 contributions for his campaign, authorities said Thursday.
Donovan fired the fundraiser, Robert Braddock Jr., and his campaign manager, Josh Nassi, and hired Tom Swan of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group to take over his campaign just 10 weeks from the Democratic primary on Aug. 14.
Braddock, 33, of Meriden, was arrested at his apartment on a criminal complaint that says he conspired with others to hide contributions from a person who wanted to kill a tobacco tax bill before the General Assembly. Nassi was not charged, but an unnamed campaign aide was implicated by the authorities.
The money came from an undercover FBI agent posing a business investor opposed to a proposal to tax roll-your-own cigarettes, according to an affidavit on file in U.S. District Court. The tax bill never came to a vote.
Donovan tried to maintain his campaign schedule within an hour of the firings, attending a housing conference Thursday evening in Hartford to accept an award. He confirmed Nassi's firing to reporters from the Mirror and two TV stations, but he walked away without comment when asked if he had been questioned by the FBI.
Agents interviewed at least a dozen legislators Thursday, according to a legislative staffer.
In an emailed statement, Donovan said that his campaign has terminated all the workers implicated in the investigation.
"I am cooperating fully with the investigation, which is on-going, as is my campaign," Donovan said. "The campaign employees allegedly involved have been terminated, and the leadership of the campaign has changed. Tom Swan is joining the campaign, as campaign manager, effective immediately."
Swan, the executive director of CCAG, succeeds Nassi. The campaign statement did not identify the fired campaign workers, but a source says Braddock and Nassi were the only workers terminated.
Donovan immediately faced demands by his Republican opponents and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a fellow Democrat, to publicly answer questions about the case.
"These allegations are despicable," Malloy said in a statement. "While I am encouraged that the Speaker is cooperating with the investigation, his position requires that he give our residents a full explanation of what he knows."
Two of his Republican opponents, Mark Greenberg and Andrew Roraback, said Donovan needs to publicly address the investigation, while his two rivals for the Democratic nomination, former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti, responded cautiously.
"These are very serious allegation that we expect will be thoroughly investigated," said Jeb Fain, a spokesman for Esty.
"These allegations against Mr. Donovan's campaign staff are very serious and we are sure the FBI will investigate this matter thoroughly. Our campaign does not wish to inflame any issues surrounding the investigation," Roberti said.
Braddock's lawyer, Frank J. Riccio II of Bridgeport, said his client denies any wrongdoing.
"At the time of arraignment he intends to plead not guilty," Riccio said. "He denies the allegations against him and believes that the evidence presented will prove his innocence. Yesterday was certainly a whirlwind day for him."
Braddock was hired as a professional fundraiser. He was a co-founder of Progressive Capital Strategies, a political fundraising firm.
Its website described him as "Politically savvy and exceptionally motivated, Mr. Braddock is an accomplished finance director and fundraising consultant with proven experience crafting and implementing successful capital raising plans for Democratic candidates."
Nassi did not return a call for comment.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said he was one of the dozen lawmakers contacted Thursday by FBI agents in early morning phone calls. Cafero said he told the agents he had no contact with Donovan about the tax bill, and the agents told him he was not a target.
Cafero said he disagrees with Donovan on nearly every major political issue, but he cannot conceive of him doing anything unethical.
"I know Chris for 20 years," Cafero said. "He's the most honest guy I ever met."
House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, who is in line to succeed Donovan next January, issued a statement expressing confidence that Donovan would cooperate with authorities.
"I am shocked by the allegations contained in the Federal indictment," he said. "Sadly, they cast a shadow over the entire legislative process, and for that reason I am sure that Speaker Donovan will cooperate fully with the investigation. It is imperative that the investigation be thorough and completed as rapidly as possible."
The FBI investigation involved an undercover agent posing as an investor in a tobacco shop who secretly recorded phone calls and face-to-face conversations with Braddock and other conspirators not identified by name. One of the other alleged conspirators was referred to as a campaign aide.
The arrest affidavit did not indicate why the investigation was initiated, but it describes a series of conversations that quickly followed a vote April 3 by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee to approve the tax proposal.
An undercover agent provided $11,000 in cash to a conspirator, $10,000 to be converted into four $2,500 checks that would be donated to Donovan's campaign and $1,000 as a fee.
A second $10,000 in bundled contributions was delivered in May, with three $2,500 checks going to the Donovan campaign and one to a political party.
One of the co-conspirators, identified in the affidavit as CC-1, agreed to cooperate with the government after being confronted by the FBI on April 26. In one of his calls with Braddock, CC-1 refers to the conduits in whose names contributions were made as "a--hole drug addicts."
One them apparently failed to deposit the cash, so the check to the campaign bounced.
"The last time one of these a--hole drug addicts bounced a check even though we put the f-cking money right in their hand," CC-1 complained to Braddock, according to the affidavit.
CC-1 asked Braddock to double-check if the checks cleared in the second bundle of $10,000.
"Because I don't want to, ah, look like an idiot in front of my, you know, my future congressman," CC-1 said.
"No, I, I understand," Braddock replied.
CC-1 also referred to the conduits as drunks. It was unclear if they literally used drug addicts and drunks to make the contributions or if CC-1 was engaging in hyperbole.
"You can't trust the drunks," CC-1 said.
"You know. You know. Grabbing these drunks and drug addicts and saying, 'Here, write this check,'" CC-1 said.
Braddock laughed again.
"Like I said, you know, it was a very good investment for us to kill that bill," CC-1 said. "And they want to stay friends for a long time."
Braddock is not quoted in the affidavit as promising any action by Donovan.
The tax proposal was a Senate bill approved by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee that never was acted on by the Senate. The bill never came before the House, so Donovan was not in a position to make a decision on whether to bring the measure to a vote.
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, was not available for comment late Thursday afternoon. But Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Adam Joseph said, "Don did not have any communications with Chris regarding this bill" during the regular 2012 session, which ended May 9.
More importantly, Joseph added, Senate Democrats have talked with the speaker's office since the regular session ended, and both sides are looking to include the measure in one of the budget policy implementation bills that are expected to be adopted in the June 12 special session.
The primary reason the bill died on the Senate calendar during the regular session, Joseph said, is that Sen. Len Suzio, a Meriden Republican, had attached a controversial amendment to temporarily lower wholesale gasoline taxes this summer. Majority Democrats in the Senate already had proposed, and the full legislature had enacted, a circuit-breaker mechanism to effectively freeze the state's wholesale gasoline levy.
"That amendment was going to be a talker," Joseph said, adding that the Senate couldn't afford to wage a major debate on that bill during the waning days of the regular session.
But Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said majority Democrats in the Senate could have called the tobacco bill during any of the final three days of the regular session, since he and Williams had negotiated an understanding that Suzio's gasoline tax amendment -- which had been filed in connection with several bills -- would only be called during the state budget debate.
"I'm sure people would have stood up and talked about" the tobacco measure, McKinney added. "There was [GOP] opposition to the bill, no doubt about it, but it wasn't filibuster type."
The legislation at issue grew out of a dispute between the Department of Revenue Services and a smoke shop retail outlet based in southwestern Connecticut.
After a Superior Court judge ruled earlier this year that DRS couldn't classify Tracey's Smoke Shop as a tobacco manufacturer merely because it owned and rented cigarette rolling machines, based on current definitions under law, the administration crafted legislation to change them.
The bill raised in the legislature's finance committee would make any entity that has or allows use of a "cigarette rolling machine" a tobacco product manufacturer. This, in turn, would require them to pay an annual fee to certify their business with DRS, and contribute to the same public health trust fund cigarette manufacturers have paid into since a lawsuit against five big tobacco firms was settled in 1998.
Two senior House Democrats on the finance panel, Mary Mushinsky of Wallingford and Emil "Buddy" Altobello of Meriden, said Donovan's office never contacted them about the bill.
And when the Democratic-controlled finance committee approved the measure by a 33-17 vote on April 3, all 32 Democrats in attendance voted in favor, while 17 out of 18 Republicans voted no.
U.S. Attorney David Fein and Kimberly Mertz, the special agent in charge of the Connecticut office of the FBI, announced the arrest Thursday afternoon.
"This arrest represents the FBI's commitment to the citizens of Connecticut that we will thoroughly investigate allegations of public corruption," Mertz said. "Combating corruption at all levels is the FBI's top criminal priority."
Mirror staff writer Jacqueline Rabe Thomas contributed to this report.