Meriden — House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan denied Sunday night that he was aware of what the FBI says was a conspiracy by members of his congressional campaign to take contributions to influence tobacco legislation.
“Let me be very clear about this: At no time did I know that anyone might have been trying to funnel illegal contributions to my campaign,” Donovan said outside his campaign headquarters. “No one ever made a deal with me as a quid pro quo.”
Donovan, a Democrat who has represented this city in the General Assembly for 20 years, said he will neither resign as speaker nor will he entertain ending his campaign for Connecticut’s only open congressional seat, the 5th District.
In his first news conference since the arrest of Robert Braddock Jr., who was his campaign finance director, Donovan showed flashes of anger at what he indicated was a betrayal by Braddock and others.
“You want to know what I’ve been feeling? I’ve felt heartsick and disappointed. And angry, too,” Donovan said. “But no one who has ever known me has ever known me to walk away from a fight that’s worth fighting.”
The challenge Donovan faces as he tries to stabilize his campaign was evident at the outset of the news conference: His spokesman, Gabe Rosenberg, told reporters, “I have to take a minute to set some ground rules.”
In short, Donovan would not discuss any aspect of the investigation of his campaign that wasn’t already public.
“Chris’s lawyer has made it very clear to us that while she recognizes the importance of Chris speaking directly to the public, we must take great care not to do anything that might interfere with this important federal inquiry,” Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg interrupted any questions that reflected on the investigation, calling it “inappropriate” for Donovan to answer. It may have been more accurate to say it would have been inadvisable.
Donovan is under no legal prohibition to refrain from discussing the case, but his lawyer, Shelley R. Sadin, is intent on keeping on good terms with the U.S. attorney’s office as Donovan tries to remain a witness, not a target.
Sadin, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer with the Bridgeport firm of Zeldes Needle & Cooper, generally refrains from talking to reporters about her cases. Normally, she would have forbidden someone in Donovan’s position from speaking publicly.
But political clients have different goals, especially those who are trying to win a Democratic primary in 10 weeks.
So, Donovan met the press, standing at a lectern on the sidewalk, facing a dozen reporters on a noisy street, occasionally pausing in his answers to let a truck pass. The airhorn of a train stopped the proceedings at one point.
Standing behind him was his wife, Elaine, their college-age daughter, Sarah, and their older son Aaron, who followed his father into union organizing after his graduation from college.
“There is a terrible irony in all of this,” Donovan said. “For years, I fought tooth and nail for Connecticut to have the best public financing laws in the country. We passed them — and they’ve brought transparency and accountability to our state campaigns. And I find myself in this position, defending myself from what is just unthinkable.”
Braddock is accused of conspiring to hide the identity of a donor, who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, who offered himself as a businessman opposed to a bill taxing roll-your-own cigarettes.
According to an arrest affidavit, the undercover agent conspired with Braddock and others to funnel $20,000 through straw donors, providing $10,000 in the last month of the session and another $10,000 when the bill died from inaction. Each $10,000 came in four $2,500 checks.
It is illegal to donate money under another name, and donors in Connecticut are limited to $7,500 in contributions to a congressional campaign, with $2,500 allowed for an endorsement convention, $2,500 for a primary and $2,500 for the general election.
The tobacco legislation was a Senate bill never acted on in that chamber, so it never came before the House, where Donovan controls the agenda as speaker. The FBI has not released any evidence implicating Donovan.
“Let me say this clearly: No one bought my involvement, my position or my influence on the ‘roll your own’ legislation or any other. Period,” Donovan said.
Donovan said he had been unaware of any question about his campaign finances until Wednesday.
“I only found out about the investigation on Wednesday when the FBI called me out of the blue for an interview,” he said. “And I was shocked to read in the news the next day that Rob Braddock had been arrested. It was like getting punched in the stomach.”
On Thursday, Donovan fired Braddock, his campaign manager, Josh Nassi, and the deputy finance director, Sarah Waterfall. His friend, Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, took over the campaign.
Swan held a news conference Friday, announcing that Donovan would recuse himself from a leadership role in the June 12 special session and that the campaign had hired former U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy to conduct an internal investigation.
“Leadership is measured by what you do when bad things happen,” Donovan said Sunday. “When I learned about this, I fired the staff involved. I hired a thorough and fair former U.S. attorney as an independent investigator, and I removed myself from any possible conflicts of interest. My reputation is on the line, and I know it.”
Donovan said he knew some of his 8,500 donors, but not all. In a modern congressional campaign, it is unusual for a candidate to know every donor, he said.
“But as the candidate whose name and face are on this campaign, I did sign off on hiring key campaign staff,” Donovan said. “If anyone is responsible for those decisions, it’s me. And I regret each of those hires right now.”
Donovan was downplaying, however, the visibility of a $2,500 check in his congressional campaign. He has raised $1 million, with $589,922 coming from itemized donations, $235,679 from other committees, and $176,029 in small, unitemized donations.
But fewer than 50 of his 1,384 itemized donations were checks for $2,500 — the amounts involved in the FBI investigation. About 200 checks were for $1,000 or more.
“Friends and supporters contribute,” Donovan said. “If they believe in you enough, they get their friends to do the same. Sometimes, they’re people you’ve never met.”
Donovan was briefly overcome as he expressed gratitude for support received since Thursday.
“My family has been by my side every minute of this,” Donovan said, taking a long pause to compose himself. “And I love you and thank you for being with me.”
He has yet to hear from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy or most other top elected officials. Swan said no one has called to urge he quit the campaign.
More than two dozen supporters attended the news conference, including friends from the labor movement, like Dan Livingston, the lawyer who negotiates for the state employees bargaining coalition.
The campaign has tried to maintain a sense of normalcy — it opened satellite offices over the weekend in Waterbury, New Britain and Danbury — and dozens of volunteers campaigned door to door.
But it has no fundraising staff, and the ability to wage a full defense is beyond its direct control. It must wait for the U.S. attorney’s office to explain what led the FBI to mount a sting operation against his campaign.
For now, Donovan is only a cooperating witness, neither labeled as a target nor assured he is not a target of what the U.S. attorney and FBI says is a continuing investigation.