By way of Virginia super PAC, wealthy donors boost Stefanowski

Connecticut law requires an IE group’s ads to disclose its top donors.

A Virginia super PAC is providing a way for seven supporters of  Connecticut gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski to collectively spend nearly $350,000 on his behalf — 100 times the maximum $3,500 contribution each could give directly to Stefanowski’s campaign for the GOP nomination.

Protect Freedom Political Action Committee of Warrenton, Va., can make unlimited expenditures on behalf of Stefanowski, so long as it does not coordinate activities with the Republican candidate’s campaign. So far, it has raised $346,500 from seven donors, six of whom are Stefanowski contributors who have already given his campaign the maximum allowed by law.

It reported paying $106,840 this week to Strategic Media Placement, a firm that buys time to air television commercials, signaling the start of an advertising campaign on behalf of Stefanowski.  Its campaign finance filing gave no indication who is producing the PAC’s ad, though Strategic is part of a larger firm that does political and commercial advertising.

An initial spot posted on Protect Freedom’s web site resembles some of the candidate’s ads — not a surprise, given that the super PAC’s spot draws heavily on video produced by Stefanowski’s campaign. A spokesman for Stefanowski said the footage was readily available on the internet and its inclusion in the new TV spot was not the result of coordination, which would be illegal under state law.

Super PACs and other independent-expenditure groups, a dominant feature of presidential politics over the last two election cycles, can effectively negate limits on direct contributions to campaigns — as Protect Freedom’s finances readily show. After maxing out with $3,500 contributions to Stefanowski, the top five donors to Protect Freedom’s new Connecticut effort gave contributions ranging from $30,000 to $100,000.

The two biggest donors are two of Stefanowski’s former colleagues at GE: Denis Nayden of Stamford, the former chief executive officer of GE Capital, gave $100,000; and Ronald F. Carapezzi of Norwalk, the former president of GE Commercial and Industrial Financing, gave $86,000.

Raymond Debbane of Greenwich, the chief executive of the Manhattan investment firm, the Invus Group, gave $50,000. Debbane is best known as the man who, according to Forbes, turned a $224 million investment in Weight Watchers in 1999 into a stake worth $5.2 billion in 2012.

Catherine D. Wood of Wilton, the chief executive of ARK Investment Management, gave $50,000. One of her advisory board members is Arthur Laffer, an economist and paid consultant to the Stefanowski campaign.

Stefanowski, who has proposed quickly eliminating Connecticut’s estate tax and phasing out its income tax over eight years, said he knows Debbane as someone who “hates the income tax.” But he said he has had no conversations with Debbane or the other donors about Protect Freedom.

The other donors include Reverge Anselmo of Greenwich, $30,000; Robert Castrignano of Stamford, $25,000; and Brian Navarro of Mystic, $5,000. All but Castrignano gave $3,500 to Stefanowski’s campaign

How a Virginia-based PAC came to be a vehicle for contributors interested in promoting Stefanowski is not clear, though a top Stefanowski advisor, Chris LaCivita, and the chairman of Protect Freedom, Michael Biundo, crossed paths in 2016, when both worked on the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

Biundo did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He is a partner in RightVoter, a political consulting firm that worked for three Republican presidential candidates in 2016: Rand Paul, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and, finally, Donald J. Trump. LaCivita referred questions to the PAC.

In both parties, there are overlapping networks of operatives and donors who have worked for or contributed to independent expenditure groups.

The mailing address for Protect Freedom is a mail drop at a UPS store in Warrenton, Va., that also is used by America’s Liberty PAC, whose stated mission is to support “Senator Rand Paul and other liberty-minded candidates and important pro-liberty legislation.” The treasurer and executive vice president is Elizabeth Tate, who also is listed as a contact for Protect Freedom.

Tate said she handles financial documents for the groups and had no idea how Protect Freedom came to raise and spend money in Connecticut on behalf of Stefanowski. Its two other beneficiaries this year are two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, Kelli Ward of Arizona and Eric Brakey of Maine.

Stefanowski is the second candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary to benefit from an independent-expenditure group. FixCT, Inc., has raised $137,000 in support of Steve Obsitnik, with $100,000 from a single donor, Thomas McInerney, a venture capitalist from Westport.

FixCT, Inc. has reported no activity since the State Elections Enforcement Commission announced on June 27 was investigating the PAC for potential illegal coordination with Obsitnik’s campaign.

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