Saying that the scandal surrounding Democratic House Speaker Christopher Donovan’s congressional campaign “has a corrosive effect on public confidence in state government,” state Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, called Tuesday for a bipartisan legislative “committee of inquiry” to investigate “this abuse of power and public trust.”
At a late-morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, McKinney said the panel should have eight members — two from each of the four political caucuses in the legislature — and should hire an independent counsel with subpoena power.
However, Democrats resisted his effort. House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, issued a statement in the early afternoon, calling McKinney’s proposal “at best, premature,” and “at worst, … a partisan stunt.” Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said federal investigators need to complete their work in the case before the legislator considers any investigation of its own.
McKinney had originally called for the legislative probe on June 1, the day after the scandal broke publicly. But he said that last week’s new indictment and arrests in the case make it urgent that Democrats, who control both chambers in the General Assembly, now should agree to form the investigative committee.
For example, McKinney said, the indictment included transcripts of questionable electronic messages in which an unidentified aide on Donovan’s Capitol staff gave inside information to the manager of Donovan’s congressional campaign, Joshua Nassi, who was arrested last week.
The aide gave Nassi continual updates this past spring about Democratic leaders’ deliberations on a pending bill a to impose new taxes and fees on “roll-your-own” smoke shops, where customers pour tobacco into machines that make cut-rate cigarettes, the indictment said. Several political contributors, who had financial interests in such smoke shops, were trying to kill the measure in an alleged conspiracy with members of Donovan’s campaign staff, according to the indictment.
“Based on the new indictments, we now know that this conspiracy extended all the way to the most senior staff within the Speaker’s office,” he said. He said it’s important that lawmakers learn the identity of the Capitol legislative aide who was the pipeline for information to Nassi at the campaign.
House Democrats still have not yet said who the unidentified speaker’s staff aide is – or even whether they consider the aide’s actions improper and are looking into them.
Nassi had been a high-ranking, $110,000-a-year counsel on that same speaker’s Capitol staff until last fall, when he left to manage Donovan’s congressional effort. Donovan fired him and two other campaign staffers after the scandal became public on May 31.
Later Tuesday, McKinney’s fellow Republican, House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero said he agrees in principle that last week’s indictment raised issues that legislators should investigate, but he said there are issues of procedure and legislative authority that will take weeks or months to resolve before any probe could begin. Cafereo said he had “initiated discussions” with Sharkey about the rules for creating such a panel, in case “we decide to take such action.”
However, since Sharkey and Williams had already rejected the idea, the Cafero statement did not appear to give McKinney’s proposal any immediate momentum.
Cafero said in the statement that he was only “notified last evening at 10:30 p.m. of the senator’s intention to call a press conference today,” and “unfortunately, due to business commitments,” he was unable to attend.
Despite Cafero’s reservations about procedural issues, he said he agreed with McKinney that last week’s indictment brought out new information that the legislature needs to look into – particularly with regard to the legislative aide’s communications with Nassi.
Cafero said it was “concerning” to him that “a partisan employee for a congressional campaign” – Nassi, who used to work for the speaker’s office – had “detailed converations … with an active member of the General Assembly Democratic caucus staff about legislation that is pending at that moment. … [Why] would a campaign staff member have a direct interest in a piece of legislation? What does that have to do with getting your candidate elected?”
A total of $27,500 allegedly was funnelled into Donovan’s congressional campaign by roll-your-own smoke shop owners and their co-conspirators, in hopes that the speaker would use his power at the Capitol to kill the “roll-your-own” tax legislation, federal prosecutors say. The conspirators used straw donors who acted as “conduits” by putting their names on checks for which other people provided the funds, prosecutors say.
The roll-your-own tax legislation failed to win approval by the May 9 adjournment of the regular 2012 legislative session. However, it was approved in a mid-June special session, about two weeks after the Donovan campaign scandal broke publicly and brought notoriety to the issue.
McKinney said Tuesday that the scandal involved not only the possible collusion between Nassi and the unidentified Donovan aide, but also a list of bills that were considered during the 2012 legislative session. It apparently was compiled by Nassi, he said.
“According to the Speaker’s own internal investigation, there also exists a list in Nassi’s handwriting of seven bills pending during the 2012 session, of which the ‘Roll Your Own Bill’ was just one,” McKinney said. “Now that staff people within the highest office of the Legislature have been implicated and it appears that many other bills may have been targeted, we as a legislature – both Republicans and Democrats – cannot turn a blind eye any longer.”
McKinney said that it is important that the other six bills on the handwritten list be made public, to assure that there was no corrupt activity surrounding them as well. The prominent attorney hired by the Donovan campaign to perform the internal probe, Stanley Twardy, identified only the “roll-your-own tax bill” and not the others.
He said a “myriad of questions” must be answered: “How could this happen? Was it an isolated incident? What steps can be taken to help prevent this from happening in the future? Who within the Speaker’s office attempted to influence Roll Your Own legislation and who from the Speaker’s office communicated the progress of that effort to the Speaker’s congressional campaign? What other bills were on Nassi’s list and were legislative staff involved in negotiating or drafting those bills? Did the Speaker solicit contributions from special interest groups affected by those bills?”
“If there were additional bills influenced as a result of these coordinated activities, legislators have a right to know that information and be given an opportunity to revisit their votes on those matters,” McKinney said. “The public needs to know that this abuse of power and public trust will not be tolerated by its elected representatives.”
Sharkey, the Democratic majority leader, issued a statement about an hour after McKinney’s press conference ended, saying: “From what I’ve seen thus far from the federal investigation, there are no charges that suggest our state legislative process was compromised by any violation of federal campaign laws. If contrary information comes to light, I will call for appropriate measures to be taken within the state House of Representatives on a bipartisan basis. Until that time, Senator McKinney’s proposal is, at best, premature. At worst, it is a partisan stunt.”
Williams, the top Senate leader, said: “The FBI should be allowed to conduct and complete its investigation without interference from the legislature. Upon the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, there is a clearly prescribed procedure for how the House of Representatives could proceed. However, until the FBI completes its work, Senator McKinney’s request is premature.”
Cafero conceded two months ago that his Republican House caucus had received five $1,000 checks for its three political action committees that he believed were tainted by their connection to the same federal campaign-finance investigation that has hit the Donovan campaign. Cafero said on June 1, the day after the scandal broke, that after talking with federal law enforcement officials he had decided to return the $5,000 to the people who signed the checks — because the funds may have been of “questionable origin” and the check writers apparently were only acting as conduits for the money. Cafero has been unwilling to say what conversations and understandings were involved with the $5,000 in contributions.
When McKinney was asked Tuesday if his proposed legislative “committee of inquiry” should investigate the arrangements that led to those $5,000 in contributions to the House Republicans’ PACs, he said members of such a panel could look into whatever they thought was relevant.
Cafero issued a statement that concentrated on procedural details, saying: “The State Constitution, under Article Three, clearly establishes that each house of the legislature will determine the rules of its proceedings involved in punishing one of its own members, and if an inquiry is to be called it ought be done by the House. We can also examine the possibility of creating a mechanism by which a member of the House can petition a bill to the floor, similar to the way it is currently conducted in committee, because any inquiry cannot successfully examine the conduct of its members without reviewing the process that allowed it to take place.”
Cafero added: “The most important thing for us to remember is that a federal investigation into these matters is currently ongoing. While there is a significant interest in the House for examining these issues, nothing we do should deter, distract, or interfere with the work of federal authorities currently working on this case.”
McKinney said that the “committee of inquiry” could easily work without disrupting the federal investigation.
“As each new detail leaks out” in the Donovan investigation, “it has a corrosive effect on public confidence in state government,” McKinney said. The legislature should have convened a committee of inquiry when allegations first surfaced in June. Having missed that opportunity, we need to convene one now.”
Donovan denies knowing about, or participating in, such a conspiracy, and federal authorities have not accused him of wrongdoing.
Eight people including Nassi have now been arrested in the ongoing federal probe, with the latest indictment and arrests coming last week. The first arrest was announced May 31 – that of Robert Braddock Jr., the now-fired finance director for Donovan’s campaign, who was charged with conspiring to hide the source of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
Donovan faces a three-way primary Aug. 14 for the 5th District against fellow Democrats Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti. Incumbent 5th District U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy is running for U.S. Senate, and will vacate the House seat after the November election. Four Republicans — Andrew Roraback, Mark Greenberg, Lisa Wilson-Foley, and Justin Bernier — are competing in a four-way primary for their party’s 5th District nomination on Aug. 14.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was non-committal when asked Tuesday whether the legislature should investigate the allegations made in the federal indictment, saying that that decision rests with lawmakers themselves.
“The legislative branch has a way to deal with these things,” he said at a press conference at the State Armory about storm preparedness by utility companies. “I think we should all be concerned about what happened and I trust that the legislative body will deal with this at the appropriate time.”
But he said that if the legislature does do an investigation, lawmakers should coordinate such an inquiry with federal prosecutors so as not to “endanger” the pending cases.
Malloy, who as governor is also the de facto head of the state’s Democratic Party, also did not urge Donovan to drop out of the 5th District race because the Speaker has not been accused of any wrongdoing himself.
“Although people around the Speaker are alleged to have done some bad things, that’s where it is right now,” Malloy said. “Some clarity of the situation would be helpful, I think, for everybody in this regard.”
Courant Staff Writer Wes Duplantier contributed to this report.
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