(Updated 4:27 p.m.) In 2007, when then Sen. Minority Leader Louis DeLuca pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for asking an associate of a Danbury trash-hauler to assault his grandaughter’s husband, the state Senate voted 33-0 to create a six-member bipartisan committee to investigate the Republican lawmaker’s actions.
Sen. John McKinney, the Fairfield Republican who succeeded DeLuca, asked Tuesday for the same treatment for outgoing Speaker of the House Chris Donovan.
Federal authorities have charged eight people in connection with a scheme to hide the identity of donors who gave $27,500 in illegal conduit checks to Donovan’s 5th Congressional District campaign. The donations allegedly came from roll-your-own smoke shop owners seeking to defeat legislation detrimental to their business interests. Donovan denies any knowledge of the scheme that alleges the involvement of two of his former campaign workers.
The latest unsealed indictment reveals communication between his former campaign manager, Josh Nassi, and a member of his legislative staff regarding the RYO legislation. The indictment details text messages between Nassi and the unnamed legislative aide talking about ways to defeat the legislation, which was eventually passed during a June 12 special session.
“Based on the new indictments, we now know that this conspiracy extended all the way to the most senior staff within the Speaker’s office,” McKinney said. “It involved, not just former Donovan policy adviser Josh Nassi, but at least one other senior level staff person who presumably still works in the Speaker’s legislative office.”
McKinney said that when DeLuca was being investigated, the standard was not whether someone had broken the law. Rather, it was whether the public’s trust had been violated. He said it was pretty clear that the public’s trust has been broken with regard to Donovan’s office.
“No one in good conscience can read that indictment and say that the public’s trust and the integrity of this institution have not been violated. It has. The question is to what extent and by whom?” McKinney said Tuesday at a press conference in the Legislative Office Building.
The Senate minority leader said he would like to see the formation of an eight-member, bipartisan, bicameral committee to answer that question. He said the committee should be empowered to hire an independent counsel with subpoena power.
According to Donovan’s internal investigation by former U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, there also exists a list in Nassi’s handwriting of seven bills pending during the 2012 session, of which the “Roll Your Own” bill was just one.
“Now that staff people within the highest office of the Legislature have been implicated and it appears that many other bills may have been targeted, the legislature — both Republicans and Democrats — cannot turn a blind eye any longer,” McKinney said.
McKinney first called for a committee of inquiry into the Donovan campaign scandal June 1. He has consistently advocated the formation of a standing committee on ethics since being elected Minority Leader of the Senate in 2007.
Though McKinney said his Senate Republican caucus is behind him, they alone cannot form the inquiry committee. He would need leadership from the legislature’s three other caucuses on board to pass a resolution establishing the committee.
For the time being that seems unlikely. House Republican leader Lawrence Cafero did not attend Tuesday’s press conference and was not supportive of McKinney’s June 1 call.
In a Tuesday statement, Cafero said he agreed with McKinney that the allegations have “cast a long shadow over the entire legislature.” But he said since the first federal indictment he’s taken a measured approach and resisted making statements that could be perceived as partisan jabs.
“To me, the most important thing is that any action be grounded in fact, not innuendo or the allegations of criminal defendants under indictment,” Cafero said.
He said he’s initiated a discussion with House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey about forming a committee and has had staff research the rules regarding such an action. If an inquiry is to be made, the state constitution requires it to be started in the House, Cafero said.
“The most important thing for us to remember is that a federal investigation into these matters is currently ongoing. While there is a significant interest in the House for examining these issues, nothing we do should deter, distract, or interfere with the work of federal authorities currently working on this case,” he said.
In June, Cafero said he learned from federal authorities that straw donors also delivered five $1,000 checks to three House Republican PACs. Each of the checks have either been returned or allowed to expire.
The Democratic caucuses are not expected to be supportive of the idea of investigating one of their top offices during campaign season. Sharkey, the man who will succeed Donovan as Speaker of the House, said it was premature to form a committee to investigate.
“From what I’ve seen thus far from the federal investigation, there are no charges that suggest our state legislative process was compromised by any violation of federal campaign laws. If contrary information comes to light, I will call for appropriate measures to be taken within the state House of Representatives on a bipartisan basis,” Sharkey said in a statement. “Until that time, Senator McKinney’s proposal is, at best, premature. At worst, it is a partisan stunt.”
Senate President Donald Williams agreed McKinney’s request was premature, at least until the FBI has had time to complete its investigation.
“The FBI should be allowed to conduct and complete its investigation without interference from the legislature. Upon the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, there is a clearly prescribed procedure for how the House of Representatives could proceed,” he said in a statement.
McKinney said the Democrats’ reluctance to start an investigation wasn’t surprising.
“There is one consistency up here — and I’ve only been here for 14 years — when a Republican’s been alleged to do wrongdoing, we hold a bipartisan investigation. When Democrats are alleged of wrongdoing, we do nothing. That’s not a partisan statement. That’s not opinion. That’s a fact,” he said.
Unlike the situation with DeLuca, where he had pleaded guilty before a legislative inquiry was formed, federal authorities have not alleged any wrongdoing on Donovan’s part. The candidate has maintained he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing done on his behalf by campaign staff.
McKinney said he does not need Cafero on board to get the ball rolling. All he would need are Democrats to agree to the investigation.
However, speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Cafero said he didn’t believe calling for an investigation was premature. But he said there were still a lot of questions regarding the committee McKinney suggested and its powers. For instance, he questioned what it could do considering Donovan hasn’t been accused of anything and some of the staffers potentially involved don’t even work for the General Assembly anymore.
“Let’s assume that even without them present or they did cooperate, we found wrongdoing — what authority do we have as a legislature to ‘punish’ them? Do we have authority to fine? Obviously we don’t have criminal authority,” Cafero said.
McKinney said he was surprised that Democrats haven’t come out to express their disgust since the release of the second indictment.
“Not one House Democrat has come out and said, ‘What was going on?’ and to me they should all be ashamed of themselves,” he said.
Former correction official and union leader Ray Soucy is the only one to plead guilty in the federal case. Jury selection is set for Oct. 10 for most of the remaining defendants, which include Donovan’s former campaign finance director, Robert Braddock Jr., and Nassi.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report.