The congressional campaign of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, began damage control Friday with the anouncement that Donovan will temporarily relinquish some duties as speaker and that his campaign has hired a Republican former U.S. attorney to conduct an internal investigation.
Donovan did not appear at the press conference outside the State Capitol, but his new campaign manager, Tom Swan, said Donovan soon will publicly answer questions about the arrest of his congressional fundraiser and firing of his former campaign manager, Josh Nassi.
“I want to start off and say unequivocally Chris did nothing wrong, and if I thought for one second there was a question about that, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Swan, who took a leave of absence as executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group to run the campaign.
Swan announced a third firing: Sara Waterfall, the deputy finance director. The campaign wanted “a clean slate” in its fundraising, he said.
Robert Braddock Jr., the former finance director, was arrested Wednesday and charged with concealing contributions from an undercover FBI agent posing as an investor who wanted to stop tax legislation.
Former U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, the managing partner of Day Pitney, will conduct an internal inquiry with the goal of issuing a report within 15 days. In Twardy, the campaign chose an appointee of two GOP presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Twardy was U.S. attorney for Connecticut from 1985 to 1991, then served as Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr.’s chief of staff. (His civic activities include sitting on the board of directors for The Mirror’s parent, the Connecticut News Project.)
By temporarily giving up some responsibilities as speaker, Donovan avoided what were expected to be questions from the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and other legislative leaders about the propriety of overseeing a special session that begins June 12.
House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, will handle all negotiations related to legislation that will be considered during the special session, but Donovan will vote on legislation and is not resigning as speaker, Swan said.
The difficulties and doubts still facing Donovan’s campaign were evident in statements from Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen, a former Democratic state chairman, that applauded Donovan’s recusal decision, but offered no encouragement for him to stay in the race for Congress.
“The Speaker made the right decision today when he decided to turn his responsibilities for the Special Session over to Rep. Sharkey,” Malloy said. “There’s a lot of important work to do between now and June 12th, and then on June 12th, and the Speaker’s active participation would have been a distraction. In terms of what comes next for the Speaker, I urge him to give it a lot of thought, quickly, and come forward and speak to the people of Connecticut.”
Jepsen’s statement alluded to the possibility that Donovan may yet need to resign as speaker or end his campaign.
“Unfortunately, these allegations cast doubt on the integrity of legislative actions at the core of Speaker Donovan’s responsibilities,” Jepsen said. “Accordingly, Rep. Donovan has wisely chosen to recuse himself from acting as Speaker of the House during the upcoming special legislative session. As the investigation unfolds, he will need to guide his actions by what is best for the people of Connecticut, even should that come at the expense of his congressional campaign or his tenure as House Speaker.”
Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, issued a joint statement applauding Donovan’s recusal, but adding their voices to those who say Swan’s press conference is no substitute for one by Donovan.
“We believe Speaker Donovan’s decision today to recuse himself from negotiations relating to the special session was correct,” they said. “The allegations regarding concealed contributions, however, are serious and disturbing. We urge the Speaker to immediately, directly and personally answer all questions related to these allegations.”
Donovan is facing a tight timetable to reassure donors and supporters that he remains a viable candidate in the three-way race with former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 5th District. The primary is Aug. 14, and Roberti tried to capitalize Friday on Donovan’s difficulties.
One day after issuing a cautious statement professing that “our campaign does not wish to inflame any issues surrounding the investigation,” Roberti offered much stronger language at a press conference conducted across the street immediately after Swan’s concluded.
If the allegations against Donovan’s former campaign financial director are true, “it is one of the most reprehensible things that can happen in a campaign,” Roberti said. “This is the type of politics I am running against.”
Mark Greenberg, a Republican candidate, said late Friday night that Donovan should resign as speaker and end his campaign. Another GOP contender, Justin Bernier, criticized him for using Swan: “Hiding behind staff shows a real lack of courage by this candidate.”
Earlier Friday, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, called on Donovan to relinquish his leadership post and asking legislative leaders to join him in seeking a committee of inquiry to determine if Donovan has done anything to warrant censure or expulsion.
McKinney said the allegations that Donovan’s fundraiser concealed the identity of a donor who wanted to kill tax legislation raise questions about every action taken by Donovan on legislation since becoming a candidate for Congress.
“The facts and allegations in the affidavit are a grave violation of the public trust and cast a pall on all of the legislative activities Speaker Donovan has participated in since announcing his run for Congress,” McKinney said.
In his press conference, Swan was limited in his knowledge of the federal investigation that led to the arrest of Braddock on charges he concealed the identity of a donor interested in stopping legislation to tax roll-your-own cigarettes.
He could not answer a key question: Have federal authorities told Donovan he is a target of their continuing investigation or have they assured him he is not?
(Later Friday, Swan said Donovan has not been told he is a target._
Donovan is not implicated in the limited evidence made public by the U.S. attorney’s office in connection with Braddock’s arrest.
In excerpts of recorded conversations with Braddock, the fundraiser said nothing to indicate that Donovan was aware of the effort to conceal the source of $20,000 in contributions or if he did anything on the donor’s behalf.
The House chairwoman of the legislature’s tax-writing panel said Friday that neither Donovan nor his office ever reached out to her in any way regarding the roll-your-own legislation during the session.
“I never had a conversation about this bill,” said Rep. Patricia Widlitz of Guilford, “absolutely no communication at all.”
Widlitz was among the dozen legislators questioned Thursday by FBI agents about the bill, which died from inaction in the Senate.
Donovan has hired a criminal defense lawyer, Shelly R. Sadin, from the Bridgeport law firm of Zeldes Needle & Cooper. One of the firm’s lawyers, Max Medina, is a supporter of Donovan’s and knows Swan as a CCAG board member.
Swan said Donovan still is trying to learn how his campaign came to accept seven contributions of $2,500 that authorities say were illegally funneled through “conduits” who pretended the money was theirs to give. Another $2,500 was directed to the Democratic Party.
In the meantime, he will face pressure to speak publicly.
“First and foremost, the Speaker owes the people of Connecticut a thorough explanation. He must publicly answer any and all questions pertaining to this matter,” McKinney said in an emailed statement.
On that count, McKinney’s comment was similar to a statement issued by Malloy on Thursday.
It was not clear if Donovan could completely abstain from a leadership role during the special session, when all legislation to be considered must be signed by the speaker of the House and president pro tem of the Senate.
McKinney called for Donovan to step down without consulting with House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, who was unaware of the statement until contacted by a reporter.
“I think it’s premature,” Cafero said.
But Cafero joined McKinney, Malloy and others in pressing Donovan to publicly answer questions.
“There’s been some serious allegations here,” Cafero said. “I know Chris has respect for the institution. He needs to clarify and answer some questions.”
Mirror staff writer Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this report.