Posted 7/30/12

Happy Warrior?

DownóBut Not Out?
Rep. Chris Donovan

Photo by Steve Kotchko

Democratic House Speaker Christopher Donovan often portrays himself as a happy warrior in the political battlefield.  Throughout his career, Donovan has exhibited the upbeat persona of an ebullient high school coach.  Be positive, keep smiling, and you can win!

Lately that demeanor has been hard to maintain for Donovan, whose campaign for the Democratic congressional nomination in the 5th District has been under investigation by the FBI for months.

The trouble began May 31st when the feds busted Donovan’s campaign finance director Robert Braddock, Jr. on charges that he tried to hide the true source of certain campaign contributions that allegedly were part of a scheme to buy influence with Donovan in his powerful role as House Speaker.

Donovan said he was “shocked” by the arrest and allegations saying the news felt “like getting punched in the stomach.”  The House Speaker vehemently denied any knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing and he promptly fired Braddock, another key official in his congressional bid—campaign manager Joshua Nassi, and another worker.

While some of his Republican rivals called on Donovan to step down as Speaker and/or quit the congressional campaign, Democrat Donovan vowed to stay the course.  He has kept campaigning in advance of his party’s three-candidate primary for the nomination set for Aug. 14th.

In recent weeks, Donovan made a few statements to the press, but refused any detailed Q & A sessions, on the pretext that he didn’t want to upset the continuing federal investigation.  It appeared that the wind and waves on Donovan’s campaign pond were settling down, until last week.

On July 26th, the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut David Fein, and Kimberly Mertz, Special Agent in Charge for the FBI’s New Haven division announced the arrests of seven additional individuals linked to the Donovan campaign probe.

That list included Nassi, Braddock, several owners and employees of so-called “roll your own” cigarette shops, one of whom is a Waterbury police detective George Tirado.  At the same time, the feds announced that Harry “Ray” Soucy, a former state Correction Department employee and union official had pleaded guilty on two charges tied to the campaign scheme.

To date, Donovan himself has not been charged with any violations, though the indictment documents in the case seem to draw Donovan closer to the controversy.

The catalyst for the scandal appears to be bad blood between the “roll your own” shop operators and state officials.  The Malloy administration viewed the shops as a gambit to avoid Connecticut cigarette tax laws, and the Revenue Services Department sought legislation to classify the shop owners as cigarette “manufacturers”.  The owners wanted to stop the tax.

According to the feds, instead of opposing the proposed levy legally by speaking out at legislative hearings, and meeting with their elected representatives, the shop owners, apparently coaxed by Donovan campaign officials, bought into an illegal quid pro quo deal.  They were led to believe Donovan would help block the tax if they surreptiously channeled contributions to his campaign.

If targeted influence-peddling wasn’t enough of an allegation, the feds claim the parties involved in the case became worried that some contribution checks that came directly from smoke shop owners would arouse suspicion.  The feds claim a detailed camouflage plot ensued.  The risky checks were returned, and the money was handed to “conduits”, persons whose names were not linked to the smoke shops.  New checks were issued and the true source of the contributions was concealed.  That’s not legal said the feds, and arrests were made.

Ironically, the tax bill in question never made it to the State House for debate, and it died during the regular session.  After the feds blew the whistle on the scheme, lawmakers did approve the tax during a special session, taking away the smoke shops loophole.

In the indictment documents, Soucy refers to the person the feds call “Public Official Number 1”, presumably Donovan, as his “good friend” and tells the smoke shop owners their campaign contributions amount to “buying insurance” that the tax bill will be blocked.

According to the documents, on May 2nd, Soucy talked to Nassi, Donovan’s campaign manager at the time, asking about Donovan’s position on the tax bill and noting he’d already delivered $20,000 in contributions tied to the issue.  Then the federal indictment reads:  “On May 3, 2012, Soucy informed Nassi that he had spoken with Public Official Number 1 the previous night, to which Nassi responded, ‘Yeah, I talked to him.’ Soucy reported to Nassi that Public Official Number 1 told him ‘he’s working on it.’  Then the indictment reads:  “Soucy said, ‘hopefully we can get this thing killed and I can take care of Public Official Number 1 for another ten grand and much more later on.”

That scenario in the indictment and others seem to put Donovan dangerously close to the scheme, though Donovan and his supporters contend all of this went on without Donovan’s direct knowledge, and that the Speaker apparently thought he was just discussing another controversial bill in the legislature.

After the additional arrests were unveiled last week, and those charged faced the TV cameras after appearing in New Haven federal court,  Donovan made another of his very brief public appearances to address the scandal.

“I expected sooner or later there would be developments in this ongoing investigation,” Donovan said, in a short statement that took him one minute to read to reporters at the State Capitol.  “What I didn’t expect,” he added, “what I’m practically speechless about is that, despite my hard-earned reputation for honesty, and my career working for campaign finance reform, that there are people who thought that they could buy my vote.”

Donovan went on to denounce the alleged quid pro quo scheme saying it characterized “everything that’s wrong with politics and everything I’ve spent my life fighting against.”  He added emphatically:  “My vote is not for sale and it never  has been.”

The embattled House Speaker again professed his innocence.  “I didn’t know some of the contributions that came to this campaign were illegal.”  Donovan said an independent investigator he hired to look into the scandal “found nothing to indicate that I had any involvement in the conduct alleged in (the indictments).”

When reporters peppered him with questions after his statement, Donovan, entered “happy warrior” mode calling out “thanks guys” and quickly exiting the State Capitol without answering any of the inquiries.

Donovan seems to be a candidate who may soon develop cramps in both hands from keeping his fingers crossed for luck, hoping he can survive the scandal and win the Democratic primary August 14th.  The House Speaker is sticking to his mantra that he just didn’t know anything about the alleged illegal campaign activity going on around him.  As one of Donovan’s allies, State AFL-CIO President John Olsen, told the Hartford Courant :  “If Donovan’s guilty of anything, he’s guilty of having a full plate doing the business of the people and didn’t have time to notice this—I hate to say it—juvenile operation.”

Follow Steve Kotchko on Twitter for news and insider tidbits on politics and government@CRN_News