MERIDEN — Standing outside his campaign headquarters Sunday as rain clouds threatened, it became immediately clear to reporters that there wasn’t much Chris Donovan was going to say about the federal investigation that led to the arrest of his campaign finance director.
What Donovan did say is that he plans to stay in the 5th Congressional District race.
Sunday’s news conference was the first time Donovan spoke to reporters about the arrest last Wednesday of his campaign finance director by federal authorities. While Donovan may have wanted to speak freely about what happened, Gabe Rosenberg, his communications director, continued to interrupt reporters if they asked questions about the investigation.
This wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Rosenberg warned reporters at the outset not to ask questions about “what he told the FBI in a brief and voluntary interview last week and what he will share with them as this investigation proceeds.”
In his opening remarks, Donovan said the first thing he wanted to do was to speak to reporters and the public, but he was unable to do so because of legal “limitations.”
Donovan maintained that he had nothing to do with allegations that his campaign staff traded his influence as Speaker of the House for campaign donations. No bills are called for votes in the House of Representatives without the Speaker’s approval, making the office among the most powerful in state government.
Donovan did agree to relinquish his leadership position for the June 12 special session to House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey because the roll-your-own cigarette legislation may be raised for a vote. The undercover federal sting operation involved an FBI agent posing as an investor to a roll-your-own smoke shop who wanted to see the legislation, which created a $5,000 manufacturing license and tax increases, defeated.
“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 Sunday. “No one ever made a deal with me as a quid pro quo.”
When he learned of the allegations and the arrest of his finance director, Donovan said he felt like he had been “punched in the gut.”
In most political campaigns, the candidate typically raises funds and makes calls to donors. Donovan said that the thing he likes least about campaigning is fundraising, and the task was delegated to his staff.
Donovan said the only thing he regretted was hiring the staff members who are involved in the federal investigation.
“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.”
Finance Director Robert Braddock Jr. was charged with conspiring to conceal the contributor of at least eight $2,500 donations. He was released on a $100,000 bond. Along with Braddock, Campaign Manager Josh Nassi and Deputy Finance Director Sarah Waterfall were fired by Donovan as soon as the allegations surfaced.
Donovan called it a “terrible irony” that this would happen on one of his campaigns, because he fought for some of the toughest public finance and disclosure laws in the country.
“We passed them — and they’ve brought transparency and accountability to our state campaigns,” Donovan said. “And I find myself in this position, defending myself from what is just unthinkable. For the thousands of hours I’ve worked to guarantee fairness and honesty in the political process -– and people in my campaign are accused of violating those values. It makes me sick.”
Donovan, who generally has a cheery demeanor, got choked up when he spoke about how his family and supporters have stood behind him during these past few days. Donovan’s wife, son, daughter, and daughter-in-law were all in attendance at Sunday’s news conference.
“I won’t be surprised if these recent events result in the loss of some support from certain people,” Donovan said. But he vowed to continue his campaign in the face of what are likely to be immense fundraising challenges.
Asked whether he was told that he was the target of the federal investigation, Donovan said, “I’ve not heard anything. I’m just cooperating with them.”
Asked to describe the campaign’s relationship to Ray Soucy, the local labor leader and correction officer widely thought to be Co-Conspirator 1 in the Braddock affidavit, Donovan was cut off by Rosenberg:
“Once again it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation,” Rosenberg said.
He also cut of questions about whether Donovan recalled being asked by past or present staff to influence the roll-your-own legislation.
Asked about how he would go forward and raise money for his campaign, Donovan said it’s not just about him. He said he’s talking about healthcare and jobs, and those are issues people care about.
“I have a history of good government. I have a history of fighting for working families. I have to get out there and convince the voters,” Donovan said.
The primary is about 10 weeks away, and Donovan already was trailing both of his Democratic opponents in fundraising before the federal investigation was made public. He will need to get his message across to the voters in the 41 towns that make up the 5th District if he expects to have a chance at winning. Usually that’s done through mailers and advertisements, but in Donovan’s case it may need to be through an army of volunteers.
Donovan said he spent the weekend opening satellite offices in Danbury, Waterbury, and New Britain, where he said he was greeted by 150 supporters ready to volunteer to knock on doors and make calls.
“I guarantee you that is multiple times more than any candidate in this race had of unpaid volunteers going out to do this,” Tom Swan, Donovan’s new campaign manager, told the media after the press event. “It’s because of Chris’ history of working for families.”
He said as soon as the independent investigation into all of the campaign’s 8,500 donations is completed by former U.S. Attorney Stan Twardy, they will share the report with federal authorities and possibly the news media if investigators allow it.
“It’s not like we’re backing down from anything,” Swan said.
Asked similar questions about the federal investigation, Swan warned reporters that he is not allowed to say anything because what is clear is that “the U.S. Attorney’s office will not be happy about it.”