This story was co-written by Courant Staff Writers Edmund H. Mahony and Jon Lender
Federal authorities have charged the finance director for state House Speaker Christopher Donovan’s congressional campaign with trying to hide campaign contributions of about $20,000, following an FBI undercover investigation of alleged influence-buying at the state Capitol.
Robert Braddock Jr., 33, the campaign employee, was arrested Wednesday, according to a variety of sources. The questionable contributions were made in connection with efforts to kill legislation that would have imposed new fees and taxes on certain kinds of tobacco retailers, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.
Braddock has been terminated, Donovan said in a statement Thursday evening. Donovan also fired his campaign manager, Josh Nassi, sources said. Nassi worked for Donovan in the House Democrats’ caucus until he recently switched over to the campaign payroll. He could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
Donovan did not make himself available on the telephone.
U.S. Attorney David B. Fein said the investigation is continuing.
The evidence against Braddock is detailed in an arrest warrant affidavit.
Although Braddock is clearly identified by his position and name in investigative documents that federal authorities have made public, Donovan is not.
Braddock is described in the affidavit as finance director for “Public Official Number 1,” who is a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from the state’s 5th Congressional district and who is a current member of the state House of Representatives.
Public records show that Braddock has been working for Donovan for about $3,800 a month.
Donovan is the Democrats’ convention-endorsed candidate for Congress in the 5th District. He faces an Aug. 14 primary for his party’s nomination against Democratic challengers Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti.
Federal agents have fanned out across party lines, and they went undercover to pursue the investigation .
They have talked to as many as 12 legislators from both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as legislative aides. One top Democratic interviewee was House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey of Hamden. House Republican Leader Lawrence Cafero of Norwalk and a House Republican legislative aide, John Healey, also were interviewed and were told they were not targets, sources said.
Donovan issued a statement shortly before 5:30 p.m. Thursday, saying: “I am cooperating fully with the investigation, which is on-going, as is my campaign.”
The statement continued: “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, a longtime Democratic liberal activist, is executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.
Sharkey, the majority leader, issued a statement of his own late Thursday night: “I am shocked by the allegations contained in the Federal indictment. 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.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Donovan’s fellow Democrat, commended federal authorities “for their diligence in the investigation and the speed in which they’ve taken action.” He said “these allegations are despicable” — and added that Donovan has an obligation to explain what has happened.
“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,” Malloy said. “Allegations like this not only damage a campaign or a candidate, they also undermine citizens’ belief in their government’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.”
“These are very serious allegations that we expect will be thoroughly investigated,” said Jeb Fain, spokesman for Esty, one of Donovan’s two Democratic rivals.
“We’re finding out about this right now, just as everyone else is, but clearly these are very serious and disturbing allegations,’’ said Mary Moran, spokeswoman for Roberti, the other Democratic primary candidate. “Attempting to hide a person’s contributions to a campaign for Congress needs to be thoroughly investigated.”
Republican candidates in the 5th District also weighed in.
“If the allegations are true and the Speaker knew about this activity, I think that would render him unfit as a candidate. If he was not aware of this activity, it calls into question his role as the candidate,’’ said state Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen, the party-endorsed candidate in the four-way, Aug. 14 GOP primary for the district nomination.
“This could be another in a series of ethical lapses by Donovan’s campaign,” said Chris Cooper, spokesman for Mark Greenberg, another primary contender. “These are very serious charges, and at the very least they speak to the issue of judgment and character.” Cooper cited Donovan’s acceptance of donations from lobbyists who had bills pending before the legislature during its recently concluded 2012 session; he said the contributions were questionable although legal.
“One-party rule breeds political corruption,’’ said Justin Bernier, another GOP 5th District primary contender. “If these allegations are true, it’s another reason for voters to break the Democratic monopoly in Connecticut and go back to two-party rule in our state.”
Chris Healy, a senior advisor for the other Republican primary candidate, Lisa Wilson-Foley, said not enough is known about the investigation, and “we don’t feel we’re in a position to comment on it.’’
Fein, the top federal prosecutor in the state, and Kimberly Mertz, who leads the FBI office in Connecticut, said Braddock was charged with conspiracy to conceal the source of contributions to the campaign of a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
The complaint alleges that Braddock conspired with others to accept conduit campaign contributions, which are contributions made by one person in the name of another person. It is a violation of federal campaign finance law for any person to knowingly accept a contribution made by one person in another’s name.
The purpose of the conduit contributions allegedly was to conceal the fact that those actually providing the money had an interest in tax and licensing legislation that was introduced earlier this year in the General Assembly, over which Donovan holds considerable influence as House speaker.
The legislation introduced would have deemed “roll-your-own” smoke shop owners to be tobacco manufacturers under Connecticut law, a designation that would have subjected them to a substantial licensing fee and tax increase. The legislature’s finance committee voted in favor of the bill, Senate Bill 357, on April 3..
Potential enactment of the roll-your-own taxes and fees prompted Braddock and two co-conspirators to arrange a $10,000 payment in April to the Donovan campaign, consisting of four, $2,500 checks issued in the names of conduit contributors, according to information the FBI collected through recorded telephone calls and meetings involving undercover agents.
The arrest warrant affidavit reports that one or more members of Donovan’s campaign staff discussed the conduit payments as early as April 3, the day of the favorable committee vote on the tax and fee legislation.
In the April 3 conversation, one of the unidentified co-conspirators called an FBI agent who was posing as an investor in a roll-your-own shop. The conspirator said he had set up a meeting on the following Wednesday. The undercover agent promised to increase the initial payment from $5,000 to $10,000.
“You know,” the undercover operative said. “We’ll bump it from five to ten … and that, that should hopefully, you know get us over that finish line.”
In May, federal authorities said a co-conspirator who helped arrange the initial payment was recorded saying that he and unidentified others were prepared to contribute a second $10,000 if the roll-your-own legislation was defeated. One of the parties to the conversations, according to the arrest warrant affidavit was yet another co-conspirator who is identified only as “an aide to the campaign.”
The bill effectively died on May 9, when the legislative session ended without either house calling for a vote.
The second $10,000 payment, made on May 14, consisted of three checks in the names of conduit contributors payable to the campaign and a fourth check from a conduit contributor to a political party that is not identified in the affidavit.
There were at least two foul-ups in the payment process, the affidavit says.
One of the checks in the first $10,000 payment was returned for insufficient funds, according to a recorded conversation between two co-conspirators.
“What’s up?” one of the conspirators asked.
“Not much man,” the other replied. “…one of the, ah, checks … ah, bounced.”
Braddock was told later by a co-conspirator one of the checks in the second payment was in the form of a bank check provided by an actual, roll-your-own tobacco shop owner. Braddock arranged for the check not to be deposited into the campaign’s bank account, according to the affidavit.
On May 16, 2012, the co-conspirator and an aide to the campaign met at a restaurant in Southington, the affidavit says. At that meeting, the co-conspirator provided the aide with a replacement $2,500 check in the name of a different conduit contributor who was not affiliated with any roll-your-own shops, federal prosecutors said.
A day earlier, Braddock and an unidentified co-conspirator had a phone conversation about both the value and faults of the people they were dealing with. According to a transcript provided by federal authorities, the co-conspirator told Braddock: “Like I said, you know, it was a very good investment for us to kill that bill. And they want to stay friends for a long time.”
Fein, the U.S. attorney, said that in Braddock’s role as campaign finance director, it is alleged that he conspired to conceal the source of campaign contributions to the campaign of a candidate for Congress.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI are committed to investigating and prosecuting illegal behavior that corrupts our political process,” Fein said. “This investigation is ongoing.”
Fein said the investigation included numerous recorded conversations, as well as an FBI special agent acting in an undercover capacity.
The charge of conspiracy to conceal campaign contributions carries a maximum term of five years and a fine of up to $250,000.
Legislative Democrats who control the House and Senate have been talking about the possibility of reviving the roll-your-own tax bill in a June 12 special legislative session planned for passage of bills necessary to implement the state budget.
Donovan has yet to say whether he would have anything to do with the issue, or if he will relinquish his speaker’s duties during the special session in light of the arrest of his campaign staff member.
The bill was pushed by state tax officials after a February Superior Court ruling that roll-your-own tobacco shops are not cigarette manufacturers. State Attorney General George Jepsen had gone to court last year on behalf of state Revenue Services Commissioner Kevin Sullivan, seeking an injunction against Tracey’s Smoke Shop and Tobacco LLC for the alleged illegal manufacture of cigarettes at its stores in Norwalk and Orange.
Courant Staff Writers Daniela Altimari and Christopher Keating contributed to this report.
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