At 12:10 p.m. Tuesday, House Speaker Chris Donovan gaveled the chamber into special session, presided over the prayer and pledge of allegiance, then walked off the dais.
It was the first time Donovan had been back in the House chamber since his congressional Campaign Finance Director Robert Braddock Jr. was arrested on conspiracy charges related to allegations he funneled straw donations to the campaign in order to influence legislation.
Asked if he thought Braddock’s arrest put a black eye on the legislative process, Donovan dodged the question.
“Everybody wants to do legislative business. That’s what we’re doing. We have a good bill that people worked hard on,” he said.
Following Braddock’s arrest, Donovan announced he would step away from his leadership responsibilities for the special session.
“I opened the chamber and my deputies, as always, are here to pitch in so that’s fine,” Donovan said before retreating to his office to watch the day’s events on television.
The man who stepped in to fill his shoes was House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
Sharkey said things were a little different in the special session. While, as majority leader, he would have been in the negotiations for the session anyway Donovan’s absence changed the dynamic.
“I’m usually the speaker’s wingman and this time I had to fly solo without a wingman, so in that sense it was a little different,” he said.
Sharkey said under the circumstances, stepping aside was the appropriate thing for Donovan to do.
“Just to avoid any possible perception that he was in any way influencing what we were doing today,” he said.
Sharkey said he didn’t think the federal investigation was on the minds of his members as they convened for the session. The roll-your-own cigarette bill at the heart of the investigation wasn’t even on the radar of most lawmakers, he said.
“It was an issue that was really out on the margins during the regular session and most folks didn’t even know much about it,” he said.
As far as the federal investigation is concerned, “I think everyone is confident that Chris knew nothing of that, so in that context I think we’re all here rallying to support him under the circumstances,” Sharkey said.
He dismissed a suggestion that Braddock’s arrest gave the appearance that lawmakers running for reelection can be influenced by campaign donations. He said the only reason the donations were possible was because Donovan is running for a federal office.
“In state campaigns, any of those kinds of contributions—the size and the source of those contributions are not allowed in state elections. I think if anything it points out the fact that our state election system is the toughest in the nation. It should not give anyone pause as to how we conduct ourselves at the state level,” he said.
Sharkey said he thinks money has too much influence in federal elections and would like to see Connecticut’s model restricting certain kinds of contributions during session adopted at the national level.
While Sharkey dismissed the mood and the atmosphere at the Capitol Tuesday, other lawmakers did not.
Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said the mood in the House chamber was a little somber and tenuous.
“I think we’ll see that people are trying not to go too far on their questions or their answers,” during debate, she said.
There seemed to be a feeling among many lawmakers that they were playing by the rules and suddenly everything they say or do may end up as part of a federal investigation.
Some lawmakers jokingly went around feeling lobbyists and others for a wire. They were joking, but one of the unnamed co-conspirators, widely reported to be Correction Officer Ray Soucy, was a familiar face in the halls of the Capitol. Soucy is allegedly the man who arranged for the $20,000 in straw donations to be given to Donovan’s campaign.
“After all of this you’re wondering when you’re talking to somebody,” Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, said. “People are a little uncomfortable and there have been a few off-color jokes made about the roll-your-own thing.”
Morin was referring to the legislation that an undercover FBI agent posing as a roll-your-own cigarette shop investor was seeking to influence, according to Braddock’s arrest affidavit.
Morin said he just hopes the FBI concludes its investigation quickly so “we can move on.”
Rep. Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he hasn’t really noticed anything out of the ordinary regarding the mood of the legislature.
“It’s a special session where we’re trying to tie up some loose ends,” he said. “I think once the day is done it will end on a more positive note.”
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the allegations made in Braddock’s arrest affidavit are a reflection on the institution and the process.
“It’s very disturbing,” Cafero said Tuesday morning as he walked to the state Capitol.
He described the mood as an “uneasy feeling,” but he anticipated that would dissipate when the debate begins.
In the Senate, things seemed to be proceeding as usual.
Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said she’s happy to finish the budget bills and believes they will do so with a “little pushback from the minority.”