Jon Lender: Dillon Stadium soccer promoters made tens of thousands in potentially illegal campaign contributions
A total of $47,500 in campaign contributions were made in recent months by Hartford Sports Group (HSG) lead partner Bruce Mandell, his wife and their college freshman daughter — and now questions have been raised about the legality of those donations, which went to the state Republican Party and its unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee, Bob Stefanowski.
The questions loom as the latest complication in a $14 million, mostly state-funded project to rebuild and revive Hartford’s long-dormant Dillon Stadium in Colt Park. Dillon is slated to become the home of a new United Soccer League (USL) expansion team, Hartford Athletic, which Mandell and his partners at HSG are forming with the intention of starting its season of play in the spring.
If the contributions are found to be illegal by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) — which has agreed to investigate — then HSG could be barred from signing a contract with a state quasi-public agency called the Capitol Region Development Authority (CRDA) and the city of Hartford.
That contract is necessary if plans are to move forward for HSG to lease the city-owned stadium for home games, with the CRDA acting as manager of the renovated Dillon on behalf of the city. And, officials say, that three-way agreement — under negotiation for most of this year — can’t be signed until the SEEC decides whether the contributions were legal or illegal.
Sometimes such decisions take months. Meanwhile, the clock is counting down toward when pro soccer is supposed to start at Dillon.
HSG’s own lawyer, Kevin Reynolds, acknowledged the possibility that the contributions could be illegal — but also argued against such a finding — in a Nov. 7 letter asking the SEEC to investigate and resolve the question one way or the other.
“By this letter,” he wrote to Michael Brandi, the SEEC’s executive director, “Bruce Mandell, Scott Schooley and Joseph Calafiore” — the three “principals” in the HSG partnership — “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 statutes are clean-election laws, intended to keep people who seek state contracts from bankrolling the campaigns of candidates from whom they might later seek favors.
The laws prohibit state contractors, and even “prospective state contractors,” from donating to political parties, candidates for statewide offices such as governor or a candidate for any office who is participating in the state’s Citizens’ Election Program (CEP) for public financing of campaigns.
That’s exactly what the Mandells did, according to campaign finance reports showing that:
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 to Stefanowski’s committee on Aug. 12 and Sept. 6.
Their daughter, Madison Mandell, a college freshman, gave $10,000 to the Connecticut Republican Party on Sept. 26 and made donations of $3,500 each to Stefanowski’s committee on Sept. 6 and 24. She was listed at the same Woodbridge home address as her parents in the reports.
Bruce Mandel’s partners in HSG, Calafiore and Schooley, donated on a much smaller scale. Calafiore gave $100 on Sept. 12 to state Rep. Julio Concepcion, a Hartford Democrat and CEP participant; Schooley made two $100 donations — on Feb. 9 to the successful state treasurer campaign of Hartford Democrat Shawn Wooden, and on April 7 to state Rep. Michael D’Agostino’s unsuccessful exploratory committee for the Democratic attorney general nomination.
Reynolds listed all of those donations in his Nov. 7 letter to the SEEC. He said it’s expected that Stefanowski’s committee will return one of Madison Mandell’s two donations because it was ”made in error.” The maximum allowable donation for a gubernatorial candidate is $3,500, for both a primary and a general election. Two such contributions would be allowed only if the first was made before the Aug. 14 Republican primary election that Stefanowski won — but it wasn’t.
Reynolds included Mandell’s wife and daughter in his Nov. 7 tally of the contributions in question, because the spouses and dependent children of top executives are defined under the clean-election law as “principals” of any state contractor or prospective contractor.
However, Reynolds amended his original letter on Nov. 18, writing Brandi to say that Madison Mandell’s $17,000 in contributions should be removed from the SEEC’s scrutiny. The reason, he said, is that “we have determined that Ms. Mandell in 2018 does not meet the definition of a dependent of a principal as … one ‘residing in an individual's household who may legally be claimed as a dependent on the federal income tax return of such individual.’”
All such information would be investigated and verified independently by the SEEC, whose spokesman, Joshua Foley, would not comment on any of the letters on the subject — which were released to The Courant by the CRDA and Reynolds. Reynolds also released a copy of a Nov. 19 letter confirming that the SEEC voted Nov. 14 to “authorize an investigation” into the matter.
Bruce Mandell, owner and CEO of the direct mail firm Data-Mail in Newington, referred The Courant’s questions to Reynolds, who said he stood by the comments he wrote to Brandi.
Friends of Stefanowski
“Regarding the contributions by the Mandells to Stefanowski for Governor, the Mandells are personal friends of the Stefanowskis,” Reynolds wrote to the SEEC Nov. 7. “Their daughters attend the same school and are close friends. The support for Mr. Stefanowski is a result of the families’ relationship.”
Reynolds added that the contributions went to “political committees with no relationship to Dillon Stadium or CRDA” and “were made without any intent to violate the law.”
Reynolds wrote Nov. 7 to Brandi that his “self-report complaint” was made for the purpose of getting the SEEC to investigate and decide if HSG is a “prospective state contractor” that’s banned from contributing.
“This self-report complaint centers on how to classify the role of CRDA as either an agent for the City or an agent of the state,” he wrote. “[I]t is important to emphasize that the Principals, after consulting counsel, do not believe that any of the contributions were in violation of the pertinent statutes. However, the unique circumstances of the agreement with the City and CRDA’s role in the project have created sufficient doubt that the Principals opted to file this complaint.”
If the decision is that HSG is not a prospective state contractor, then there’d be no violations of the contribution ban and HSG could move forward with a clean slate.
If violations are found, the law says the SEEC could levy a fine for each one — of “up to $2,000 or twice the amount of the prohibited contribution, whichever is greater” — but the more serious consequence might be barring HSG from signing the contract, which could ruin the pro soccer deal.
Both Reynolds and the CRDA are asking that if the SEEC does decide the contributions were illegal, it also find that there are “mitigating circumstances” — which the law gives it discretion to do — and not bar HSG from the deal.
“In the event the Commission determines a violation has indeed occurred, CRDA respectfully requests that it consider an additional finding of ‘mitigating circumstances’ concerning such violation based upon HSG willingness to ‘self-report’ and the potential economic detriment to the City that would occur if the parties were unable to enter a Stadium Use Agreement,” Anthony Lazzaro, CRDA’s deputy director and general counsel, wrote to the SEEC’s Brandi on Nov. 9.
Here are some of Reynolds’ other arguments as to why HSG is not a “prospective state contractor”:
Even though the CRDA issued the request for proposals for Dillon’s revival in September 2017, it did so only on behalf of the city —which then selected HSG over two other bidders, based on a recommendation by the CRDA.
The stadium reconstruction, now underway, is being overseen by the CRDA, but the quasi-public state agency is acting under the authority of a licensing agreement with the city. The work is mostly being financed with $10 million in state bond money, but those funds were given directly to Hartford and “no state funding was given to HSG,” Reynolds wrote to Brandi.
“The City is the Licensor, CRDA is the Licensee, and HSG is the Sublicensee,” Reynolds wrote to Brandi. “Whatever value comes to HSG in this transaction ultimately comes from the CIty. There is no value that comes from CRDA or from the state itself.”
“HSG negotiated this deal with the City,” Reynolds wrote. “The city delegated certain responsibilities to CRDA to perform on its behalf, but CRDA acted only within the authority delegated to it by the City. ...The contributions went to candidates who have no role whatsoever in Dillon Stadium or CRDA.”
The inquiry by the SEEC comes at a time when the city’s award of the Dillon deal to HSG is being questioned by the two unsuccessful bidders who responded to the CRDA’s request for proposals. Both of them, T.J. Clynch and Aaron Sarwar, appeared Nov. 20 at a meeting of a State Contracting Standards Board subcommittee, with Clynch calling the selection process a “sham.”
Clynch cited emails, obtained through a freedom of information request, that showed “extensive collaboration and assistance by City of Hartford and CRDA staff to Hartford Sports Group” months before the RFP was issued. CRDA insists the process was proper. The subcommittee dismissed the complaint “without prejudice,” which means it can be reintroduced after the planned contract is signed.
The original post can be found on the Hartford Courant’s website here.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.