Ques­tions loom over cam­paign do­na­tions

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Sundayct - JON LENDER jlen­[email protected]

A to­tal of $47,500 in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions were made in re­cent months by Hartford Sports Group (HSG) lead part­ner Bruce Man­dell, his wife and their col­lege fresh­man daugh­ter — and now ques­tions have been raised about the le­gal­ity of those do­na­tions, which went to the state Repub­li­can Party and its un­suc­cess­ful gu­ber­na­to­rial nom­i­nee, Bob Ste­fanowski.

The ques­tions loom as the lat­est com­pli­ca­tion in a $14 mil­lion, mostly state-funded project to re­build and re­vive Hartford’s long-dor­mant Dil­lon Sta­dium in Colt Park. Dil­lon is slated to be­come the home of a new United Soc­cer League ex­pan­sion team, Hartford Ath­letic, which Man­dell and his part­ners at HSG are form­ing with the in­ten­tion of start­ing its season of play in the spring.

If the con­tri­bu­tions are found to be il­le­gal by the State Elec­tions En­force­ment Com­mis­sion — which has agreed to in­ves­ti­gate — then HSG could be barred from sign­ing a con­tract with a state quasi-pub­lic agency called the Capi­tol Re­gion De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity and the city of Hartford.

That con­tract is nec­es­sary if plans are to move for­ward for HSG to lease the city-owned sta­dium for home games, with the CRDA act­ing as man­ager of the ren­o­vated Dil­lon on be­half of the city. And, of­fi­cials say, that three-way agree­ment — un­der ne­go­ti­a­tion for most of this year — can’t be signed un­til the SEEC de­cides whether the con­tri­bu­tions were le­gal or il­le­gal.

Some­times such de­ci­sions take months. Mean­while, the clock is count­ing down to­ward when pro soc­cer is sup­posed to start at Dil­lon.

HSG’s own lawyer, Kevin Reynolds, ac­knowl­edged the pos­si­bil­ity that the con­tri­bu­tions could be il­le­gal — but also ar­gued against such a find­ing — in a Nov. 7 let­ter ask­ing the SEEC to inves-

tigate and re­solve the ques­tion one way or the other.

“By this let­ter,” Reynolds wrote to Michael Brandi, the SEEC’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, “Bruce Man­dell, Scott Schoo­ley and Joseph Calafiore” — the three “prin­ci­pals” in the HSG part­ner­ship — “de­clare … that one or more po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions may have been made by each them in vi­o­la­tion of Conn. Gen. Stat. 9-612 … and 9-704(c)(1).” Those statutes are clean-elec­tion laws, in­tended to keep peo­ple who seek state con­tracts from bankrolling the cam­paigns of can­di­dates from whom they might later seek fa­vors.

The laws pro­hibit state con­trac­tors, and even “prospec­tive state con­trac­tors,” from do­nat­ing to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, can­di­dates for statewide of­fices such as gov­er­nor or a can­di­date for any of­fice who is par­tic­i­pat­ing in the state’s Cit­i­zens’ Elec­tion Pro­gram for pub­lic fi­nanc­ing of cam­paigns.

Big con­tri­bu­tions

That’s ex­actly what the Man­dells did, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance re­ports show­ing that:

Man­dell gave $10,000 on Aug. 14 to the Con­necti­cut Repub­li­can Party and $3,500 on Aug. 12 to Bob for Gov­er­nor, Ste­fanowski’s cam­paign com­mit­tee.

Man­dell’s wife, Lil­lian Gar­cia, gave $10,000 on Sept. 26 to the Con­necti­cut Repub­li­can Party and made do­na­tions of $3,500 each on Aug. 12 and Sept. 6 to Ste­fanowski’s com­mit­tee.

Their daugh­ter, Madi­son Man­dell, a col­lege fresh­man, gave $10,000 to the Con­necti­cut Repub­li­can Party on Sept. 26 and made do­na­tions of $3,500 each on Sept. 6 and 24 to Ste­fanowski’s com­mit­tee. She was listed at the same Wood­bridge home ad­dress as her par­ents in the re­ports.

Bruce Man­dell’s part­ners in HSG, Calafiore and Schoo­ley, do­nated on a much smaller scale. Calafiore gave $100 on Sept. 12 to state Rep. Julio Con­cep­cion, a Hartford Demo­crat and CEP par­tic­i­pant; Schoo­ley made two $100 do­na­tions — on Feb. 9 to the suc­cess­ful state trea­surer cam­paign of Hartford Demo­crat Shawn Wooden, and on April 7 to state Rep. Michael D’Agostino’s un­suc­cess­ful ex­ploratory com­mit­tee for the Demo­cratic at­tor­ney gen­eral nom­i­na­tion.

Reynolds listed all of those do­na­tions in his Nov. 7 let­ter to the SEEC. He said it’s ex­pected that Ste­fanowski’s com­mit­tee will re­turn one of Madi­son Man­dell’s two do­na­tions be­cause it was ”made in er­ror.” The max­i­mum al­low­able do­na­tion for a gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date is $3,500, for both a pri­mary and a gen­eral elec­tion. Two such con­tri­bu­tions would be al­lowed only if the first was made be­fore the Aug. 14 Repub­li­can pri­mary elec­tion that Ste­fanowski won — but it wasn’t.

Reynolds in­cluded Man­dell’s wife and daugh­ter in his Nov. 7 tally of the con­tri­bu­tions in ques­tion, be­cause the spouses and de­pen­dent chil­dren of top ex­ec­u­tives are de­fined un­der the clean­elec­tion law as “prin­ci­pals” of any state con­trac­tor or prospec­tive con­trac­tor.

But Reynolds amended his orig­i­nal let­ter on Nov. 18, writ­ing to Brandi to say that Madi­son Man­dell’s $17,000 in con­tri­bu­tions should be re­moved from the SEEC’s scru­tiny. The rea­son, he said, is that “we have de­ter­mined that Ms. Man­dell in 2018 does not meet the def­i­ni­tion of a de­pen­dent of a prin­ci­pal as … one ‘re­sid­ing in an in­di­vid­ual’s house­hold who may legally be claimed as a de­pen­dent on the fed­eral in­come tax re­turn of such in­di­vid­ual.’”

All such in­for­ma­tion would be in­ves­ti­gated and ver­i­fied in­de­pen­dently by the SEEC, whose spokesman, Joshua Fo­ley, would not com­ment on any of the letters on the sub­ject — which were re­leased to The Courant by the CRDA and Reynolds. Reynolds also re­leased a copy of a Nov. 19 let­ter con­firm­ing that the SEEC voted Nov. 14 to “au­tho­rize an in­ves­ti­ga­tion” into the mat­ter.

Bruce Man­dell, owner and CEO of the di­rect mail firm DataMail in New­ing­ton, re­ferred The Courant’s ques­tions to Reynolds, who said he stood by the com­ments he wrote to Brandi.

Friends of Ste­fanowski

“Re­gard­ing the con­tri­bu­tions by the Man­dells to Ste­fanowski for Gov­er­nor, the Man­dells are per­sonal friends of the Ste­fanowskis,” Reynolds wrote to the SEEC on Nov. 7. “Their daugh­ters at­tend the same school and are close friends. The sup­port for Mr. Ste­fanowski is a re­sult of the fam­i­lies’ re­la­tion­ship.”

Reynolds added that the con­tri­bu­tions went to “po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees with no re­la­tion­ship to Dil­lon Sta­dium or CRDA” and “were made with­out any in­tent to vi­o­late the law.”

Reynolds wrote Nov. 7 to Brandi that his “self-re­port com­plaint” was made for the pur­pose of get­ting the SEEC to in­ves­ti­gate and de­cide if HSG is a “prospec­tive state con­trac­tor” that’s banned from con­tribut­ing.

“This self-re­port com­plaint cen­ters on how to clas­sify the role of CRDA as ei­ther an agent for the City or an agent of the state,” he wrote. “[I]t is im­por­tant to em­pha­size that the Prin­ci­pals, af­ter con­sult­ing coun­sel, do not be­lieve that any of the con­tri­bu­tions were in vi­o­la­tion of the per­ti­nent statutes. How­ever, the unique cir­cum­stances of the agree­ment with the City and CRDA’s role in the project have cre­ated suf­fi­cient doubt that the Prin­ci­pals opted to file this com­plaint.”

If the de­ci­sion is that HSG is not a prospec­tive state con­trac­tor, then there’d be no vi­o­la­tions of the con­tri­bu­tion ban and HSG could move for­ward with a clean slate.

If vi­o­la­tions are found, the law says the SEEC could levy a fine for each one — of “up to $2,000 or twice the amount of the pro­hib­ited con­tri­bu­tion, whichever is greater” — but the more se­ri­ous con­se­quence might be bar­ring HSG from sign­ing the con­tract, which could ruin the pro soc­cer deal.

Both Reynolds and the CRDA are ask­ing that if the SEEC de­cides the con­tri­bu­tions were il­le­gal, it also find that there are “mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances” — which the law gives it dis­cre­tion to do — and not bar HSG from the deal.

“In the event the Com­mis­sion de­ter­mines a vi­o­la­tion has in­deed oc­curred, CRDA re­spect­fully re­quests that it con­sider an ad­di­tional find­ing of ‘mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances’ con­cern­ing such vi­o­la­tion based upon HSG will­ing­ness to ‘self-re­port’ and the po­ten­tial eco­nomic detri­ment to the City that would oc­cur if the par­ties were un­able to en­ter a Sta­dium Use Agree­ment,” An­thony Laz­zaro, CRDA’s deputy di­rec­tor and gen­eral coun­sel, wrote to the SEEC’s Brandi on Nov. 9.

Here are some of Reynolds’ other ar­gu­ments as to why HSG is not a “prospec­tive state con­trac­tor”:

Even though the CRDA is­sued the re­quest for pro­pos­als for Dil­lon’s re­vival in Septem­ber

2017, it did so only on be­half of the city — which then selected HSG over two other bid­ders, based on a rec­om­men­da­tion by the CRDA.

The sta­dium re­con­struc­tion, now un­der­way, is be­ing over­seen by the CRDA, but the quasi-pub­lic state agency is act­ing un­der the au­thor­ity of a li­cens­ing agree­ment with the city. The work is mostly be­ing fi­nanced with $10 mil­lion in state bond money, but those funds were given di­rectly to Hartford and “no state fund­ing was given to HSG,” Reynolds wrote to Brandi.

“The City is the Li­cen­sor, CRDA is the Li­censee, and HSG is the Subli­censee,” Reynolds wrote to Brandi. “What­ever value comes to HSG in this trans­ac­tion ul­ti­mately comes from the CIty. There is no value that comes from CRDA or from the state it­self.”

“HSG ne­go­ti­ated this deal with the City,” Reynolds wrote. “The city del­e­gated cer­tain re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to CRDA to per­form on its be­half, but CRDA acted only within the au­thor­ity del­e­gated to it by the City. … The con­tri­bu­tions went to can­di­dates who have no role what­so­ever in Dil­lon Sta­dium or CRDA.”

The in­quiry by the SEEC comes at a time when the city’s award of the Dil­lon deal to HSG is be­ing ques­tioned by the two un­suc­cess­ful bid­ders who re­sponded to the CRDA’s re­quest for pro­pos­als. Both of them, T.J. Clynch and Aaron Sar­war, appeared Nov. 20 at a meet­ing of a State Con­tract­ing Stan­dards Board sub­com­mit­tee, with

Clynch call­ing the se­lec­tion process a “sham.”

Clynch cited emails, ob­tained through a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest, that showed “ex­ten­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion and as­sis­tance by City of Hartford and CRDA staff to Hartford Sports Group” months be­fore the RFP was is­sued. CRDA in­sists the process was proper. The sub­com­mit­tee dis­missed the com­plaint “with­out prej­u­dice,” which means it can be rein­tro­duced af­ter the planned con­tract is signed.

Jon Lender is a re­porter on The Courant’s in­ves­tiga­tive desk, with a fo­cus on gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics. Con­tact him at jlen­[email protected], 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twit­[email protected]­len­der.

CLOE POISSON/HARTFORD COURANT

This artist’s ren­der­ing de­picts a $14 mil­lion, mostly state-funded project to re­build and re­vive Hartford’s long-dor­mant Dil­lon Sta­dium in Colt Park. Dil­lon is slated to be­come the home of a new United Soc­cer League ex­pan­sion team, Hartford Ath­letic.

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