Christine Stuart file photo

Something must have alerted federal authorities that all wasn’t right with Chris Donovan’s congressional campaign, according to retired FBI agent and former 5th District Republican candidate Mike Clark.

When news broke last week of the arrest of Donovan’s campaign finance director, Robert Braddock, Jr., it seemed to come out of nowhere. Federal authorities have been tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding the investigation beyond a 14-page arrest affidavit detailing a conspiracy within the Donovan campaign to hide the source of campaign contributions.

Braddock and other campaign staff members found themselves caught up in a sting operation involving an undercover FBI agent posing as an investor in a roll-your-own smoke shop. According to the affidavit, the unnamed co-conspirators allegedly agreed to help him find straw donors to funnel $20,000 to the campaign.

Clark, who until last month had been seeking the Republican nomination for the same 5th district seat, said the FBI doesn’t launch sting operations without reason to believe something is amiss.

“There’s no fishing expeditions in corruption cases,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s always some type of predicative offense or allegation out there to bring the attention of investigators.”

As a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Clark helped win convictions in several political corruption cases including the cases against former Gov. John G. Rowland and former state Treasurer Paul Silvester, as well as former Waterbury Mayors Joe Santopietro and Philip Giordano.

Law enforcement officers can’t set up an undercover operation to encourage someone to commit a crime they would otherwise be unlikely to commit because it’s considered entrapment. Clark said the FBI must have had reason to believe the Donovan campaign was likely to accept illegal donations.

Clark said federal authorities could have received a tip, either from someone inside the campaign or someone outside with knowledge of illegal campaign finance activity.

At a Monday press conference Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a former prosecutor, said there’s a number of things that could have set the investigation in motion.

“One is that there was an investigations into other matters and somehow this came across someone’s bow,” he told reporters. “… we actually don’t know who started this.” 

Malloy praised the investigators and said the case seemed to be developing rapidly. According to the affidavit, the undercover operation began in early April. Braddock was arrested less than two months later.

However, Clark said it’s not uncommon for cases to develop quickly depending upon the circumstances. Arrests can happen fast if authorities reach out to someone they’re investigating and find them unwilling to cooperate, he said.

“If someone’s not going to cooperate, you’ve already shown your hand,” he said.

Clark said the long municipal corruption investigation into Giordano wrapped up quickly once they learned of sexual abuse allegations.

“This year-long investigation ended within hours once we heard he was messing around with little girls,” he said.

Though Clark didn’t think the timing of the investigation into Donovan’s campaign had anything to do with the election cycle, he said officers investigating political corruption tend to be mindful of their effect on elections.

“The only thing they’re concerned about is they don’t want to impact an election directly. They look at that as sacred ground,” he said.

Clark said one aspect of the story that baffles him is how money connected to the investigation ended up in the political action committees controlled by House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero. On Thursday, Cafero was assured by FBI agents that he was not a target of the investigation, something Clark said they wouldn’t misrepresent.

The former special agent and recent congressional candidate said he’s been watching closely as the case unfolds.

“It’s weird seeing this from this side of the fence,” he said.

Taking off his investigator hat and replacing it with a candidate’s hat, Clark said he’s had trouble buying Donovan’s assertion he had no idea his campaign was engaged in an effort to funnel illegal donations. Clark said $2,500 checks from unknown donors would have been enough to catch his eye.

“I just can’t imagine a congressional candidate not knowing the donors who are giving $2,500,” Clark said. “If they weren’t friends or associates, I would certainly find out who they were.”