Standing alone, Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, called Tuesday for a bipartisan legislative inquiry into whether the federal investigation of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s congressional campaign has unearthed corruption within the General Assembly.
The recent indictment of Donovan’s former campaign manager, Joshua Nassi, and six others describes an exchange of emails about legislation between Nassi and a legislative aide, which McKinney described as new facts demanding a committee of inquiry.
“Those facts are alarming. They are shocking. And they show that this alleged scheme of corruption went to the highest levels of the speaker’s office and thus the highest levels of our state government,” McKinney said. “We cannot ignore these facts any more.”
But McKinney called for the inquiry without the backing of House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, notifying Cafero of his plans in a five-minute phone call the previous night.
Cafero and House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said McKinney was premature in proposing a legislative inquiry while the FBI is investigating the connection between $27,500 in contributions to Donovan’s campaign and an effort to derail legislation to impose taxes or fees on roll-your-own cigarettes.
“With all due respect to Sen. McKinney, does it make a great headline? Yes, no doubt about it. But I think there are a lot of details we have been looking at it. This is an ugly black mark on the legislative proceedings, and there are a lot of unanswered questions. The reality is a lot of them will remain unanswered until this investigation is over.”
Cafero said his staff has been researching precedents and a potential response by the House, long before McKinney’s decision to hold a press conference. He was clearly annoyed by McKinney’s decision to act unilaterally, which the Senate leader shared with him the previous night in a brief phone call.
“It sort of took me a little bit by surprise. I found out last night at 10 while watching a Batman movie with my son,” Cafero said.
Cafero noted that the Senate did not investigate McKinney’s predecessor, Senate Minority Leader Louis DeLuca, R-Woodbury, until after he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor threatening charge.
DeLuca admitted asking a garbage hauler, who turned out to be under federal investigation, to threaten a man who had been abusive to his granddaughter. At issue after his arrest was whether DeLuca had traded on his legislative position. He eventually resigned.
Donovan has not been accused of wrongdoing, but Nassi and Robert Braddock Jr., who was Donovan’s campaign fundraiser, are charged with conspiring with smoke-shop owners to kill hostile legislation in return for campaign donations.
In the recent indictment, Nassi is described as closely monitoring the legislation, checking frequently with an unnamed legislative aide.
Sharkey, who is Donovan’s presumptive successor, said he indictment doesn’t accuse a legislative staffer of wrongdoing, much less prove corruption.
“I think all of this is extremely premature,” Sharkey said. “There has been no suggestion at all by anything I have seen that suggests that legislation has in fact been influenced by what allegedly occurred in a federal campaign and with regard to fundraising in a federal campaign.”
If the legislature eventually does look into the campaign contributions made by the smoke shop owners, one line of inquiry could be directed at the GOP: Without explaining why, the FBI has notified Cafero that FBI sting money may have ended up as contributions to House Republican political action committees.
“I think everything is fair game,” Cafero said.
Donovan’s campaign manager, Tom Swan, said, “Unfortunately, it is not surprising that John McKinney would stoop so low as to play politics with such a serious matter.”
One of McKinney’s caucus members, Sen. Andrew Roraback of Goshen, is running for the congressional seat sought by Donovan.
“If I stood here and said that what was happening had nothing to do with politics, I’d be a liar,” McKinney said. “And when anyone stands before you to do a press conference from this legislature and says this has nothing to do with politics, they are lying. Everything we do has something to do with politics.”
Assuming no inquiry is launched immediately, McKinney said he will continue press for a legislative investigation after the election, when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said if the legislature should eventually conduct its own inquiry, lawmakers should closely coordinate with the U.S. attorney’s office to avoid compromising the investigation.
He declined to say if he thought a legislative inquiry was necessary, but instead reponded generally: “We should all be concerned with what happened.”
Malloy, a former prosecutor, praised the federal authorities for moving quickly, but the governor also left no doubt that he would love for voters to know more before the primary on Aug. 14
“If it is at all possible for the U.S. attorney to say whether the speaker is a target, that would be helpful and valuable information for the voters to make their decision on the 14th,” Malloy said. “Without telling anyone how to do their job, that might be a useful piece of information.”
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office had no comment.