Jon Lender: State’s probe of soccer promoter’s campaign contributions expands — but city moves to clear obstacles in his path
An expanding state investigation into potentially illegal campaign contributions didn’t deter Hartford’s mayor and city council from clearing away a legal obstacle for Bruce Mandell, the head of the Hartford Sports Group (HSG) partnership that’s assembling a United Soccer League expansion team, Hartford Athletic, to play in the city-owned Dillon Stadium that’s now undergoing a mostly state-funded $14 million renovation.
Mandell created a major snag for himself and his two HSG partners in the minor league soccer venture late last year — when he, his wife and college freshman daughter made a total of $47,500 in campaign contributions to the state Republican Party and its unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee, Bob Stefanowski.
The State Elections Enforcement Commission is still investigating those contributions — one or more of which HSG’s own lawyer acknowledged may have been illegal — and that still-pending SEEC probe has, for months now, been holding back the Dillon reconstruction project by making it impossible for the soccer promoters to sign a contract with the city and the Capital Region Development Authority for use of the stadium.
The problem: If you violate state clean election laws, as Mandell has acknowledged through legal counsel that he may have done, you can be declared ineligible to become a state contractor; the “quasi-public” CRDA is considered a state contracting agency in this case. So, if the elections enforcement agency were to conclude that Mandell violated clean election laws, then HSG could have been disqualified from signing from any contract with the CRDA, and the soccer-at-Dillon project could fall apart.
But in the past week, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin stepped in and introduced an official resolution for the city council to approve — rewording the Dillon contract that had been drafted, but was never signed. The reworded document severs any potential contractual relationship between the Mandell-led HSG and CRDA. Under Bronin’s resolution — which the Hartford council approved in a 5-1 vote Wednesday night — the three-way contract turns into a pair of two-way contracts, one between the city and HSG, and the other between the city and CRDA.
The result is that the HSG will be a city contractor, not a state contractor, and it won’t matter to the Dillon project if the SEEC rules that Mandell violated clean election laws. Even if you’re ineligible to become a state contractor, you can still sign a contract with the city of Hartford.
‘Nice contributions, boys!’
All of this isn’t happening without controversy:
On Wednesday night in City Hall, several citizens stepped to the microphone to argue unsuccessfully that the council should delay action on the resolution until various questions could be answered, including those raised by competing bidders who lost out to HSG in what they have claimed was a “sham” of a selection process for the Dillon project in late 2017. Both of those unsuccessful bidders, T.J. Clynch and Aaron Sarwar, said there are too many unresolved issues, such as pending or potential investigations by state agencies ranging from the SEEC to the state auditors to the attorney general, to act hastily. One of the speakers, Will Moffett, a Hartford resident who called himself a community political activist, said Mandell and members of his family had made political donations to Bronin in the past and called the Dillon project an example of “rich and powerful people getting what they want.”
Campaign finance reports reviewed by Government Watch show that in March of 2015, when Bronin was running his Democratic primary challenge campaign against then-Mayor Pedro Segarra, Mandell and four other members of his family each gave gave $1,000 — the maximum amount allowed by law — to Bronin’s campaign committee. So did David Kozak and Adam Salina, who since 2017 have worked as HSG’s paid lobbyists at the state Capitol at the combined rate of $5,317 per month; both also were employed individually at Mandell’s direct-mail company in Newington, Data-Mail Inc., for several years ending in 2009. That all added up to $7,000 in contributions to Bronin from: Bruce Mandell; brother Mark Mandell, brother-in-law Scott Braunstein; mother and father Joyce and Andrew Mandell, founders of Data-Mail; and Kozak and Salina.
The donations gave rise to some brief but expressive conversation outside the big, ornate council chamber. As Kozak and Salina stood outside the door in the hallway, answering a reporter’s questions about the checks they wrote to Bronin in 2015, they were approached by Alyssa Peterson, a Democratic political activist who is supporting appeal efforts by Clynch and Sarwar. “Nice contributions, boys!” Peterson said, as she moved past them into the meeting room.
Bronin, Bruce Mandell and Kozak and Salina all told Government Watch that the contributions had nothing to do with the mayor’s actions regarding the Dillon project.
Bronin, in a telephone interview, said: “First of all, there are thousands of people who contributed to my campaign in 2015 ... and I hope thousands of people contribute to my campaign [for re-election] this year. ... Nobody who contributed to my campaign has gotten special treatment.” He added: “Four years ago, there was no reason to think that my administration would have an opportunity to redevelop Dillon or bring a soccer team to Hartford.” Bronin said he thinks that the CRDA, which conducted the selection process in late 2017 and recommended Mandell and HSG to the council, “made the right recommendation” because HSG “had the credibility” and financial wherewithal, while he believes “the others didn’t offer a whole lot. ... Hartford has an opportunity to get an historic stadium rebuilt as a community asset and to bring professional soccer to Hartford, and my goal is making sure that we don’t lose that opportunity for Hartford.”
Kozak and Salina, in a written statement, said: “We supported Luke Bronin’s candidacy for Mayor of the City of Hartford in 2015, and like thousands of other people, personally contributed to his campaign. We believed that his leadership and his vision for the City of Hartford was needed for Connecticut’s Capitol City.” They said they were neither employed by Mandell nor representing him as lobbyists in 2015.
Bruce Mandell, for his part, said in an email to The Courant Friday: “Myself and my family engage in the political process with the sole intent to make our community a better place to live and prosper. Any accusation or insinuation to the contrary is a baseless, reckless attempt to damage the reputation of myself and family. There has never been and there never will be an iota of evidence that myself nor my family participated in the political process for any other reason but to support candidates that we felt could make a positive difference for our State. We are builders and creators and believe in the civic duty to to participate in and give back to our community.”
Expanding elections agency probe
It’s likely none of this would be happening if HSG’s own lawyer, Kevin Reynolds, hadn’t written a letter to the SEEC Nov. 7 to “self-report” that HSG’s three partners — Bruce Mandell, Scott Schooley and Joseph Calafiore — “declare … that one or more political contributions may have been made by each them in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. 9-612 … and 9-704(c)(1).” Those are the clean election laws, enacted in the wake of the John Rowland corruption scandal of 2003-2004 to keep would-be state contractors from bankrolling the campaigns of candidates from whom they’ll later seek favors.
Reynolds submitted the self-report after the CRDA said it wouldn’t enter the originally proposed contract with HSG and the city until the issue of the contributions was resolved with the SEEC. Among the things Reynolds reported in his letter were the following contributions: Bruce Mandell gave $10,000 on Aug. 14 to the Connecticut Republican Party and $3,500 on Aug. 12 to Bob for Governor, Stefanowski’s campaign committee; Mandell’s wife, Lillian Garcia, gave $10,000 on Sept. 26 to the Connecticut Republican Party and made donations of $3,500 each on Aug. 12 and Sept. 2 to Stefanowski’s committee; and their daughter, Madison Mandell, gave $10,000 to the Connecticut Republican Party on Sept. 26 and made donations of $3,500 each on Sept. 6 and 24 to Stefanowski’s committee. She was listed at the same Woodbridge home address as her parents in the reports.
The clean election-laws ban contributions to statewide office candidates by “prospective state contractors,” which includes immediate family members of contracting company executives. Even though such a violation would no longer affect HSG’s ability to enter a contract with the city, HSG may still be found by the SEEC to have been a “prospective state contractor” at the time of the donations. There was at least one other apparent violation unrelated to the state contracting issue; one of Madison Mandell’s $3,500 donations was in excess of the $3,500 per election legal maximum for the governor’s campaign. Reynolds has said that contribution was made “in error.” An amended campaign finance report, filed Nov. 30 by Stefanowski’s campaign committee, indicated that the $3,500 donated on Sept. 6 was being returned.
At any rate, the SEEC’s initial investigation, which was sparked by Reynolds’ Nov. 7 letter, is still pending — and now the agency has expanded its probe based on a follow-up “self-report” concerning the Mandell family’s contributions to Stefanowski, which was submitted by Bruce Mandell’s lawyer, Anthony Natale, on Dec. 17. After receiving that follow-up information, the SEEC decided at its Jan. 16 meeting to open a second investigative file concerning the Mandells. Details are unavailable because the SEEC has departed from its customary practice of releasing written complaints that it receives, once it makes a formal decision to investigate them.
The Courant requested the materials involving the Natale self-report that the SEEC normally releases, but this time all the agency would disclose was Natale’s cover letter — which said he was submitting additional information and affidavits regarding contributions by Bruce Mandell, Lillian Garcia and Madison Mandell for use in the investigation that the SEEC embarked on in November. “This information ... [is] voluntarily provided with a view toward furnishing the SEEC all relevant information concerning the subject contributions,” Natale wrote.
In denying The Courant’s Freedom of Information request for the affidavits and other information submitted by Natale, SEEC attorney Joshua Foley said in a letter Friday: “Notwithstanding the fact that this ‘self-report’ led to the additional step of the opening of a secondary matter [and a new investigative file],” Natale said that his submission “was for inclusion in an already opened, on-going investigation. ... As a result, your request is denied.”
Natale said last week that he’s “not going to comment on a matter pending before the SEEC.” Bruce Mandell was asked Thursday if he would provide some idea of what the new self-reported issues are, and his emailed response was: “We continue to cooperate with SEEC towards a resolution of the matter in front of it.”
Meanwhile, the CRDA and HSG have arranged for Hartford Athletic to play its initial home games at Rentschler Field in East Hartford if Dillon isn’t ready in early May, when the home season is supposed to begin. “We open on March 9 in Atlanta,” Mandell said.
Jon Lender’s original column can be found in the Hartford Courant here.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.