HSG CEO Bruce Mandell pays $45,000 fine for illegal campaign contributions

Hartford Athletic soccer CEO Bruce Mandell pays $45,000 fine for illegal campaign contributions

Hartford Athletic soccer CEO Bruce Mandell has paid a $45,000 fine to the State Elections Enforcement Commission for making illegal campaign contributions in 2018, many of them in the names of his wife and their college-age daughter, to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski, the state GOP and others.

The enforcement commission Wednesday voted to accept the terms of a settlement with Mandell in connection with $85,500 in 2018 contributions by him, his wife Lillian Garcia and daughter Madison Mandell, most of which the SEEC said violated state election statutes. Those violations included: exceeding the limit for an individual contribution to a candidate or committee; making “straw donations” in the name of another person; using “business assets” to make contributions; and making a contribution as a “prospective state contractor,” a practice that is banned under state clean-election laws.

Mandell, who had no comment, has already submitted a check for the $45,000 fine, which was the third-largest ever levied by the enforcement commission, the SEEC said.

The Mandell fine soon became the SEEC’s fourth-largest ever. A few minutes after voting on it at Wednesday’s meeting, the SEEC approved a $52,000 fine against Greenwich Board of Estimate and Taxation member Tony Turner, a Democrat. Turner submitted a check in that amount to settle a case in which he was found to have violated state election laws in the course of spending $343,500 from his campaign committee, personal funds and business in the 2017 municipal election. Turner and five fellow Democratic candidates unexpectedly took control of the traditionally Republican-dominated board, and GOP State Chairman J.R. Romano filed a complaint that resulted in Wednesday’s outcome.

However, it’s been the Mandell case that has attracted more notice in the Hartford area since late last year, as the fledgling Hartford Athletic minor-league soccer franchise prepared to start playing games in a newly renovated Dillon Stadium in Colt Park. The Dillon renovation project was stalled for a while last fall and winter after Mandell had an attorney send the SEEC a letter last Nov. 7, saying that he, his wife and daughter had made $47,500 in contributions to Stefanowski, the unsuccessful GOP candidate for governor, and the Connecticut Republican Party.

At the time, those donations were thought to be potentially illegal because the Mandell-headed partnership that owns Hartford Athletic, called the Hartford Sports Group (HSG), was supposed to sign a three-way contract for the $14 million, mostly state-funded, redevelopment and reuse of Dillon Stadium in Colt Park. The other two parties to that proposed pact were the city of Hartford and a state quasi-public agency called the Capitol Region Development Authority (CRDA), which has managed the stadium project for the city.

The snag resulted from clean-election laws that are designed to keep political influence out of the contracting process, ban “prospective state contractors” and actual contractors from make political contributions. All three Mandells appeared to fall under that ban, because the legal definition of a “prospective state contractor” includes immediate family members of contracting company executives — Mandell’s HSG partnership was to be in a contract with a state quasi-public agency, the CRDA.

Mandell, a businessman who also is owner and CEO of the direct mail firm Data-Mail in Newington, claimed being party to the Dillon project didn’t make his HSG partnership a “prospective state contractor” because Dillon is a city property and, even though CRDA was managing things for Hartford, it still was a city project. Ultimately, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin and the city council engineered a way around that issue early this year, rewriting the legal papers so the three-way contract became two contracts — one between the city and CRDA, and the other between HSG and the city.

The way the SEEC case turned out Wednesday, that change was necessary, because the enforcement agency found that HSG was, indeed, a “prospective state contractor” at the time the illegal contributions were made. Burns explained that the law bans contributions to gubernatorial candidates by persons who have submitted proposals "in response to a request for proposals by the state, a state agency or a quasi-public agency” — and HSG submitted just such a proposal in response to an RFP issued by the CRDA in 2017 for the Dillon project. It didn’t matter that CRDA was acting on behalf of the city, Burns said.

The ban on contributions by “prospective state contractors” didn’t turn out to be the only problem for Mandell, however, once the SEEC started investigating that original issue last November. It found additional violations such as Mandell’s having made contributions in the names of his wife and daughter. And it found that another $40,000 or so in contributions had been made — to General Assembly leadership-caucus political action committees (PACS), both Republicans’ and Democrats’.

In all, from July to October 2018, Mandell made 10 political contributions to political and candidate committees in his own name, and 17 others in the names of his wife and daughter. The 27 contributions were in the maximum amounts allowed for each committee — for example, $3,500 for the Stefanowski candidate committee and $10,000 for the Connecticut Republican Party — and they all added up to $85,500.

SEEC staff attorney Ryan Burns said at Wednesday’s meeting that Mandell admitted that "he had been the individual to make each contribution attributed to his wife and daughter” but he also “asserted that this was based on a general agreement among the three of them, an account seconded by [his] wife and daughter. Regardless of intent, however, a person is not permitted by law...to make a contribution...in a name other than one’s own.”

In addition, Burns said, 15 of the 27 contributions were made using a credit card bearing Mandell’s name and that of his business, amounting to $63,500 of the total $85,500 in contributions. Mandell reimbursed the business when the credit card statement was issued, Burns said. But, even though the evidence indicated that Mandell did “ultimately bear the financial weight” of the contributions, and reimbursed with his own funds before it became a matter under investigation, Burns said that “using business assets” to make contributions is a violation, “regardless of intent.”

The SEEC’s largest fine ever was $325,000, levied in 2016 against the Connecticut Democrats for using state contractor money to help pay for campaign mailers that benefited the 2014 re-election of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Jon Lender can be reached at jlender@courant.com.

The original Hartford Courant story can be found here.


TJ ClynchComment