An associate political science professor from the University of Hartford said Sunday that there is less cynicism among voters now than there was before Connecticut created its landmark public financing system.
However, Associate Professor Bilal Sekou, who also chairs the Connecticut Common Cause board of directors, said the ongoing trial of Chris Donovan’s former campaign finance director has the potential to once again discourage people from getting involved in politics.
“The situation falls into a broader problem Connecticut has had to deal with from time-to-time,” Sekou said. The latest evidence offered last week in a federal courtroom “just fuels public cynicism of how the political system works.”
The trial is set to resume today in New Haven.
According to testimony offered last week by a former correction officer and labor leader, politics is all “about the Benjamins.”
Last week, Harry “Ray” Soucy testified that if the public only knew what politicians would do for $10,000, “they’d burn the place down.”
Soucy is a witness called by federal prosecutors in the trial of Robert Braddock Jr., the former finance director for Donovan’s failed congressional bid. He’s a former correction officer who learned how to navigate the state Capitol when he became a leader in his union.
To hear Soucy testify in person or through phone calls or on video secretly recorded by the FBI, he would appear to want us to think that politicians in Hartford only respond to one thing: money.
Soucy was helping a group of smoke shop owners in their effort to defeat legislation that would be detrimental to their roll-your-own cigarette businesses that were thriving on a loophole in the state’s tax laws. Soucy told the smoke shop owners that in order to ensure the “legislation stayed buried,” they should give Donovan $10,000 and $5,000 to Republicans.
But in order to make it look like they didn’t originate the donations, they got straw donors — some of whom testified last week — to write the checks. That’s a violation of federal election law.
Videos entered into evidence last week show Soucy thanking Donovan for his work on the legislation backstage at the May 14, 2012, Democratic nominating convention before giving his campaign manager, Josh Nassi, checks totaing $10,000. A second video shows Soucy and smoke shop owners meeting with Republican House Speaker Lawrence Cafero in the Legislative Office Building. At that meeting, Soucy testified that he tried to leave an envelope containing $5,000 in cash in the fridge. Cafero stopped him and asked him to take a walk with his aide instead. The cash was later converted into five $1,000 checks for three Republican Political Action Committees before it was returned to the FBI.
Neither Donovan or Cafero have been charged in the case.
The trial has thus far had little impact on the day-to-day business at the state Capitol, where some lawmakers would like to believe the smoke shop affair was an extraordinary event and not typical of Connecticut politics.
But Connecticut has seen its fair share of political corruption over the past decade. Several politicians have gone to prison for corruption, including former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland, former Democratic state Sen. Ernest Newton, and former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim.
In the wake of Rowland’s 10-month jail sentence, state lawmakers sought to implement a clean elections system to help get money out of the political process.
The public financing and clean elections program passed in 2005 by the General Assembly allowed the leaders of the two caucuses to maintain their political action committees even though candidates who raise a certain amount of money in small donations under $100 qualify for public funds from the Citizens’ Election Program.
When the campaign corruption charges initially surfaced in the case last summer before Brendan Sharkey was elected House Speaker, fundraising for the three Democratic House leadership PACs was suspended briefly.
George Gallo, chief of staff for the House Republicans, has said raising money through these leadership PACs is important, but not as important as it used to be since there’s a limit on campaign donations. He said PACs are limited to giving $3,500 to state House races. In those races, $3,500 can cover about three quarters of the cost of a direct mailer to an entire district.
Advocates who championed the state public campaign finance system tried to get rid of the PACs entirely before negotiating the amount of money they could give to a campaign. As the legislative session begins to wind down, lawmakers have not proposed eliminating the use of those PACs or changing the amount of money they can use in order to help candidates.
Even in the federal elections where there is no public financing system, PACs are a way of life for political candidates.
U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, heads up Synergy PAC, which has held 63 fundraising events since 2008. Larson has championed legislation to create a federal public finance system, but until it’s established he’s said he needs to work within the system that exists. A system that requires candidates to raise large sums of money.
“Until we have a system in place for fair elections, anyone not willing to raise the money necessary to compete is left without a voice to be heard,” Larson said last summer at a forum on the issue.
Last Friday in New Haven, the jury got a glimpse into how competitive fundraising for a federal campaign can be when Donovan’s former deputy finance director, Sarah Waterfall, took the stand.
“We were trying very hard to meet as high a number as we could going into that convention, knowing that our opponents would be looking at it to see if there was any weakness in what we were doing,” Waterfall testified.
A video in evidence shows Soucy thanking Donovan for defeating the legislation smoke shop owners opposed.
“Oh hey brother,” Donovan said to Soucy, who had recently survived a heart attack. “Look at ya, he’s walking and talking and everything. I took care of you didn’t I?”
In the courtroom Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover asked Soucy whether he had any recent business with Donovan aside from the tobacco store bill. Soucy said “no.” In the video, Soucy thanks Donovan for “killing the bill” and tells him he has brought more money to give to Nassi. Donovan responds that he did not kill the bill.
“I didn’t kill the bill I worked on the legislative side. I did what’s right,” Donovan said as he walked away without telling Soucy not to give any money to Nassi under those terms.
The video then shows Soucy meeting Nassi in another room where he handed over four $2,500 checks — three payable to the Donovan campaign and one to the Democratic State Central Committee.
The trial resumes Monday. Braddock’s attorney, Frank Riccio II, is expected to present his case to the jury.