Jon Lender: Campaign contributions investigation lingers over Dillon Stadium soccer promoter
A state investigation of tens of thousands of dollars in potentially illegal campaign contributions continues to hang over the mostly state-funded project to rebuild and revive Hartford’s long moribund Dillon Stadium in Colt Park as the home of a new United Soccer League expansion team, Hartford Athletic, that is being assembled by the local Hartford Sports Group (HSG) partnership.
The investigating agency, the State Elections Enforcement Commission, took no action Wednesday, in its final meeting of 2018, toward concluding its month-old probe of $47,500 in campaign contributions made by HSG lead partner Bruce Mandell, his wife and their college freshman daughter to the state Republican Party and its unsuccessful nominee for governor, Bob Stefanowski, this past August and September.
The pending SEEC probe might be bad news for the Dillon project in two ways. First, any SEEC decision that the Mandell contributions were illegal could disqualify HSG as a contractor on Dillon and blow the whole thing up. But, even if the SEEC decides in the Mandells' favor, serious problems still could result if that decision is delayed for months beyond when it next meets in January — a possibility, based on past probes' duration — because the contract for the overall Dillon project can’t be signed until the SEEC makes its ruling. And, without that contract, the vision of a renovated stadium with a Hartford home team can’t be realized.
Home games for the new team are supposed to start on May 4, but some officials are pretty much resigned that Dillon won’t be ready. That means play would shift for the time being to the much larger (and, probably mostly empty) Rentschler Field in East Hartford — a point driven home Friday when Robert Rinker, chairman of a State Contracting Standards Board subcommittee, asked Executive Director Michael Freimuth of the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) how badly the project is being affected by the lack of a signed contract.
Construction is underway via an interim legal agreement between the City of Hartford and CRDA, but officials say an overall contract called the “Stadium Use Agreement” still must be signed by three parties — the city, the CRDA and HSG. And the longer it goes unsigned, the more construction calendars might be affected, Freimuth said.
Rinker asked if Freimuth foresaw “maybe a Yard Goats situation" at Dillon. That was a reference to the Hartford Yard Goats having to play their 2016 inaugural baseball season on the road because of legal disputes and delays in construction of their new Hartford stadium.
“We hope not,” Freimuth replied.
Rinker asked if Freimuth had “any indication” of when the SEEC was "going to take the matter up ... and going to decide?”
“No, I don’t,” Freimuth said.
The SEEC has refused comment on the details and progress of its probe, which it voted to embark on in November after a lawyer for HSG, Kevin Reynolds, submitted a Nov. 7 “self-report complaint” asking the election agency to investigate the large contributions by the Mandells, as well as small donations by Bruce Mandell’s two partners. Reynolds wrote that the contributions may have been “in violation of” a state clean-election law that prohibits state contractors, and even “prospective state contractors,” from donating to political parties and candidates for statewide offices such as governor. That prohibition covers not only top executives of prospective state-contracting firms, but also their wives and dependent children.
Reynolds also argued that, despite his self-report of the potential improprieties, there were no real violations because HSG is, in reality, working under an agreement with the city, not as a state contractor. If the SEEC decides there were indeed violations based on a finding that HSG is a prospective state contractor, he asked that the SEEC find “mitigating circumstances” that would enable HSG to continue in its role without disqualification. CRDA has joined in that request.
Self-report not HSG’s idea
It wasn’t the idea of Mandell and his HSG partners to come forward to the SEEC with the self-report, Freimuth told the state contracting board subcommittee Friday. Instead, it was the CRDA that insisted they had to do it before they could sign the three-way contract.
Freimuth has told The Courant that CRDA informed Mandell and his partners months ago that they needed to fill out some standard forms as prospective state contractors to affirm that they had not violated clean-election laws, but “there was a disagreement.” He said that Mandell and his partners contended that they aren’t prospective state contractors, because Dillon is city-owned and it is a Hartford project, even though the state is providing the city with $10 million to spend toward its current $14 million budget.
Dignitaries including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (third from left) take part in a groundbreaking ceremony at Dillon Stadium. (Cloe Poisson / Hartford Courant)
However, for reasons including the city’s well-documented financial problems, Hartford recruited the CRDA, a quasi-public state agency, to handle a public request-for-proposals process last year for the Dillon project, and, beyond that, the city also wants the CRDA to manage the renovated Dillon Stadium on a contract basis — the same way the CRDA manages Rentschler. Freimuth said that was enough of a role by CRDA to require an answer as to whether the three-way contract is a “state contract” by virtue of the state quasi-public CRDA being one of the three parties to it. “The CRDA position was that Bruce et al. would have to self-report and get a definitive ruling from SEEC,” he said, and that’s where the matter has now stuck, pending the outcome of SEEC’s current investigation.
Here are the main things that the SEEC is investigating:
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. 6 to Stefanowski’s committee.
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 on Sept. 6 and 24 to Stefanowski’s committee. She was listed at the same Woodbridge home address as her parents in the reports — although Reynolds now says she no longer lives at home and isn’t claimed by her parents as a dependent, so her donations are irrelevant to the prohibition affecting prospective contractors
However, one of Madison Mandell’s $3,500 donations was in excess of the $3,500-per-election legal maximum for the governor’s campaign, an apparent violation regardless of whether the daughter counts as a prospective state contractor.
Reynolds says the contribution was made “in error.” An amended campaign financing report, filed Nov. 30 by Stefanowski’s campaign committee, indicates that $3,500 donated on Sept. 6 is being returned to Madison Mandell. In the past such situations have been cited as violations on the parts of both the giver and recipient, even if the money is returned. What the consequences might be in this case was unclear.
Reynolds was asked what Bruce Mandell and his partners had to say about the excessive contribution by Madison Mandell, as well as how the pending SEEC probe might impair their project. HSG responded by issuing a statement through him.
“The Hartford Sports Group (“HSG”) is moving forward with the Hartford Athletic Project on schedule and as planned while we await the SEEC ruling," Reynolds said. "The outcome of that ruling will determine if we are able to sign a Use Agreement that will enable us to keep moving forward. We won’t be providing further comment on the details of the project and the ongoing discussions with the SEEC until a final ruling is made.”
Pursuing ‘collusion’ claim
The reason that the State Contracting Standards Board’s subcommittee was asking questions Friday about the SEEC case was that it had received the second official complaint in about a month from one of two unsuccessful bidders who responded to the CRDA’s late-2017 request for proposals on the Dillon Stadium project.
T.J. Clynch, who operates in business as Civic Mind LLC, filed a detailed complaint claiming “collusion” among city officials, the CRDA and HSG. He previously had appeared at a Nov. 20 at a subcommittee meeting and called the Dillon selection process a “sham.” The subcommittee dismissed that earlier complaint “without prejudice,” saying it was premature until a contract is finally signed but he could re-introduce it after the eventual contract signing.
Clynch was handed the same ruling on Friday. But he did get to elaborate on his complaint. “This all sounds like nonsense to me,” he said at the meeting. “How do you knock down a stadium and build a new one with a guy you don’t even have an agreement with? ... And you’re using taxpayer money to do it. ... Hartford Sports Group’s budget was $7 million ... and, now we’re at 14. ... There’s no way it’s not going to be 20 [million dollars]. ... I don’t know how CRDA, as an agency that’s supposed to protect the taxpaying public, has adopted this plan.”
In addition to dismissing the renewed complaint “without prejudice,” the subcommittee said claims of collusion are required by law to be considered by the office of the state Attorney General, and said Clynch could bring his his complaint there.
The original Hartford Courant article can be found 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.