Connecticut Post (Sunday)

‘A betrayal of the public trust’

Colleagues in shock over fraud allegation­s against lawmaker

- By Mark Zaretsky mark.zaretsky@ hearstmedi­act.com

WEST HAVEN — For years, Democratic state Rep. Michael DiMassa — Notre Dame High School’s 2009 “Man of the Year” — was a rising star; his arrest last week has people scratching their heads on all sides of the political aisle, from West Haven to Hartford.

Universall­y described as smart, polite and hardworkin­g by friends and colleagues, DiMassa, 30, was respected in West Haven, where he grew up and worked in various jobs in City Hall over the past 12 years, and Hartford, where he has served since 2016 as one of the younger members of the state House of Representa­tives.

His arrest has many of those friends and colleagues feeling betrayed.

DiMassa’s arrest and presentati­on in federal court Wednesday on one count of wire fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to siphon more than $636,000 in federal Covid recovery money to a company he formed in January — and from there, to a personal bank account to finance alleged gambling sprees at Mohegan Sun Casino — left people in both places wondering how it could have happened.

Documents released by the city late Friday through a Freedom of Informatio­n request made by the Register show that invoices DiMassa submitted to the city also were signed by a person under whose name was listed the title “director of finance.” The signature is not legible. Signatures on checks issued to DiMassa’s company, Compass Investment Group LLC also are not legible.

Repeated attempts to reach West Haven Finance Director Frank Cieplinski for comment have not been successful.

U.S. District Judge Sarah A.L. Merriam in New Haven said when DiMassa appeared in U.S. District Court in New Haven Wednesday that she “understand­s” DiMassa, who was one of the city employees assigned to oversee pandemic relief spending, is “in treatment” for a gambling addiction.

Public trust

“He’s a smart young man, well-educated, wellspoken. He was a hardworkin­g young man — a lot of drive to him,” said Jim Morrissey, who was the city’s Democratic town chairman when DiMassa was endorsed over longtime incumbent state Rep. Louis Esposito in 2016.

DiMassa “was a guy who would really make a name for himself in the political circles,” Morrissey said. “You didn’t consider him a 25-year-old kid. He had a lot going for him.”

Morrissey, a city Board of Education member and former City Council member, worked with DiMassa years ago when DiMassa was the council clerk. At the time of his arrest, DiMassa was the City Council’s part-time administra­tive assistant, also working 10 hours per week in the Corporatio­n Council’s office. He resigned from his city jobs Thursday.

DiMassa’s legislativ­e district includes West Haven’s northern Allingtown district, as well as a portion of the adjacent Hill section of New Haven. Each area is among the neediest areas in their respective cities.

Former two-term Mayor Ed O’Brien, who also supported DiMassa when the DTC first slated him for the 116th District legislativ­e seat, said he didn’t see DiMassa’s troubles coming.

“I am shocked that he (allegedly) did that,” O’Brien said. “Everybody is entitled to a fair hearing, but if what they’re saying is true, I am just shocked. It’s a betrayal of the public trust.

“If you’re (allegedly) taking $600,000, you’re not thinking about your constituen­ts,” O’Brien said. “The (alleged) betrayal of the public trust hurts everyone.”

He said his wish for DiMassa is that “hopefully, he gets the help he needs.”

‘Shocked’

State Speaker of the House Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said DiMassa’s arrest shocked him and everyone who worked with DiMassa in the General Assembly.

“We were all shocked,” Ritter said, calling it disappoint­ment that someone who could do “so much more” might get involved in something like what has been alleged.

“I think Mike had sort of this old soul — sort of an old-school mentality with politics,” Ritter said. “He was all about, if you shake hands, it meant something. He was a very young guy, but just had an older way about him.”

As a legislator, “I think he was guarded a little bit. Kept to himself a little bit,” Ritter said. But “he loved his community. It was very important” to DiMassa “that West Haven made progress on a host of issues.”

Ritter pointed out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, legislator­s often have been meeting virtually rather than in person, so they didn’t see each other as much — and could actually log in to debate and vote from mobile phones almost anywhere.

He wondered what impact that might have made.

“My hope, though, and I do feel it’s important to say is, he is a young guy,” Ritter said. “Mike needs to own up to this . ... But I do hope that Mike can” get past it, “make amends and do right” for the rest of his life.

State Rep. Alphonse Paolillo, D-New Haven, who other legislator­s, including Ritter, described as DiMassa’s closest confidante in the General Assembly, also was caught by surprise.

“I was definitely, definitely surprised,” Paolillo said. “... Mike is a colleague and a friend. We entered the legislatur­e together,” with both elected in 2016 and taking their seats in 2017. The two served together on the Public Safety Committee.

“It was obvious that he had a strong work ethic and a desire to represent West Haven ... and a love for the city of West Haven” and the portion of his district in the Hill section of New Haven, he said.

“We had a great working relationsh­ip that turned into a friendship,” and “it goes without saying that I was very surprised,” Paolillo said.

‘So much going for him’

West Haven’s current Democratic Town Chairman Mike Last, who met DiMassa when Last was on the City Council and DiMassa was working as a college intern in then-Mayor John Picard’s office, said that at that time and throughout the years he has known DiMassa, “certainly I never imagined that we’d be having this conversati­on.

“He had so much going for him as a young man,” Last said. “Nothing alerted me that something like this (alleged) behavior would be put on him.

“It appears he (allegedly) broke that public trust, and he will have to answer for that,” Last said. “My relationsh­ip with him is more profession­al ... . Look, it’s a shame and I hope for his sake and his family’s that he can recover and go on and live a happy and productive life.”

Last, who also is a graduate of Notre Dame, but from an earlier era, said that’s always been something he and other Notre Dame grads haves been proud of.

“It’s sad,” Last said. “It’s sad for West Haven. It’s sad for him.”

Katherine Wielk, a spokeswoma­n for Notre Dame, which prominentl­y features the phrase, “ND Brotherhoo­d for Life,” on its website, declined to comment. “We as a school just don’t think it’s appropriat­e to comment,” she said.

Picard, who first knew DiMassa as an intern in the Mayor’s Office when DiMassa was about 18 — and later supported Esposito when he was forced to unsuccessf­ully wage a primary to try hold on to the legislativ­e seat that ultimately became DiMassa’s — said he never saw any indication­s that DiMassa might someday find himself facing alleged trouble.

DiMassa, who didn’t drive when he first began working in City Hall and had to be picked up and dropped off by family and others, later got a job in the Registrar of Voters’ office before moving on to a position as a revenue clerk in the Tax Office.

Picard, now a Madison resident, said that at one point when he no longer was mayor, he advised DiMassa to “go find a job someplace else” rather than continue working in City Hall. “That was probably 2013 or 2014,” he said.

He said that was one of the few times he had spoken to DiMassa since leaving office eight years ago.

‘An emotional roller coaster’

DiMassa’s colleagues in West Haven’s legislativ­e delegation, as well as people he worked with on the City Council, were blindsided by the arrest.

“We’re all reeling from the shockwave,” said state Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven. “I don’t think anybody could have anticipate­d or expected this from our colleague.”

She said she was most upset there were not more internal controls and wants to see those problems fixed as soon as possible.

“I always thought Mike, being as young as he was and being as passionate as he was, always had a bright future,” said state Rep. Charles Ferraro, R-West Haven. “I read the affidavit. ... There were dates during the session. How did he (allegedly) do it?

“Obviously, justice has to be done ... but my concern right now is for the kid’s well-being,” Ferraro said. “He’s a young kid. I certainly hope he gets the help he needs. Michael’s a human being. He was capable of great things. .”

City Council Chairman Ron Quagliani, D-At Large, said he has known DiMassa since DiMassa was an intern and Quagliani, who later become West Haven’s chief of police, was deputy chief perhaps 15 years ago.

“A lot of us have been on an emotional roller coaster,” Quagliani said. “How can someone have gone from really an up-andcomer to the kind of allegation­s that were in that

FBI affidavit?

“Michael has always been that fixture, that face of government,” Quagliani said. “I think at one point he was in the Tax Office, he had a stint in the Registrar of Voter’s Office, the Council Office, the Corporatio­n Counsel office.

“The Mike DiMassa I knew, the public-facing Mike DiMassa,” doesn’t match up “with the Mike DiMassa in the notice that I got” Wednesday, Quagliani said.

“He’s always done his job well,” Quagliani said. “I’ve never experience­d anything but him being profession­al and wanting to help. He worked hard in his role as state representa­tive. He brought a lot of money into Allingtown and the fire district” and DiMassa “was ‘Man of the Year’ in high school, top of his class at Albertus.”

Allingtown-area Councilman Peter Massaro, D-6, who got to know DiMassa first when Massaro was Allingtown fire chief, couldn’t believe what he has read and watched.

“I am shocked. I can’t believe it — and not only that, I remember when John Picard brought him in when he was just getting out of high school and was in college,” Massaro said.

“When I asked him for help, he was there,” Massaro said. “When I asked him for help for the fire service, he was there. City Hall? He was there . ... I personally think he’s a nice kid. How he (allegedly) got involved in this, I don’t know.”

Until this week, “Everybody respected him,” Massaro said. “This kid could have gone further on. He could have run for governor some day. He had a hell of a future. It just breaks my heart.”

Allingtown-area city Councilwom­an Robbin Watt Hamilton, D-5, was at a loss to understand it.

“I thought I knew him well on a profession­al level,” Hamilton said. “I had no doubts or questions of his character, because he was just a wealth of informatio­n and very helpful. I didn’t see this coming at all.”

But despite the charges DiMassa now faces, “I wish him the best,” she said. “He’s in my prayers . ... He’s still young. He has a future in front of him . ... He’s got to figure out what that looks like now.”

 ?? Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? State Rep. Michael DiMassa, D-West Haven, center, leaves the federal courthouse in New Haven with his attorney John Gulash following his arrest Wednesday.
Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticu­t Media State Rep. Michael DiMassa, D-West Haven, center, leaves the federal courthouse in New Haven with his attorney John Gulash following his arrest Wednesday.

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