(Updated Friday 4:25 p.m.) Mayoral candidate Matthew Nemerson will not count on former City Hall dealmaker Sal Brancati to round up contributions for his campaign, after all.
Nemerson made that promise in an interview late Friday afternoon with the Independent. He contacted the Independent after the publication of a story (below) that included his defense of Brancati and of Nemerson’s approach to raising money in this campaign. Nemerson is one of six Democrats officially seeking the party’s nomination to succeed retiring Mayor John DeStefano.
Nemerson said he has made the promise clear in a conversation with Brancati, a former city economic development official who played a leading role in the DeStefano administration’s ethics and corruption scandals of the 1990s.
When Nemerson first announced his candidacy 10 days ago, he confirmed (in this article) that he had enlisted Brancati’s support for his campaign, including raising money. (The campaign has not officially started collecting donations yet, Nemerson said.)
“I have told Sal, he’s off, he’s not doing any fundraising,” Nemerson said Friday afternoon. “He’s not collecting any money for me.”
An earlier full version of this article follows.
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Starting Monday, you’ll be able to visit the web to see who gave Matthew Nemerson’s mayoral campaign money within the previous 48 hours. You won’t find out how he collected all that money.
That’s the latest word from Nemerson, one of six announced candidates for the Democratic mayoral nomination.
Nemerson vowed to make good by Monday on his promise to make campaign contributions publicly available on his campaign website within two days of receipt. He made the vow in response to criticism he has taken for not signing up for the city’s Democracy Fund, which offers candidates matching campaign money in return for promises to limit individual donations to $370 (rather than $1,000) and to swear off donations from outside committees. He argued that he was going further than other candidates in running a clean “transparent” campaign by taking this new step.
In response to a question from the Independent, he said he has no plans to make public the identities of the supporters who hold fundraisers and otherwise go around collecting contributions. He noted that no one else volunteers that information, either.
People who gather donations for a campaign can arguably rack up bigger favors from candidates than even donors do. A winning candidate could end up beholden to a person who helped funnel large amounts of donations toward his campaign.
“We have said we will publish who is giving us money within 48 hours on our website,” Nemerson said. “That is more than any one else is doing.”
“I am for as much disclosure as possible,” Nemerson said. “I’m also for a level playing field.”
One of Nemerson’s mayoral campaign opponents, Gary Holder-Winfield, argued that the underlying issue isn’t just disclosures about campaign fundraising, but the fundraising itself. He and fellow Democratic candidates Justin Elicker and Sundiata Keitazulu have signed up to participate in the Democracy Fund public-financing system; Nemerson and fellow candidates Henry Fernandez and Toni Harp have chosen not to.
“Who raises the money is important,” said Holder-Winfield. “What’s more important” is what public-financing “does for our politics: it allows people who can’t get in, to get in” and compete with candidates beholden to wealthy interests.
“The idea that money doesn’t influence municipal politics — has any one watched DeStefano administration for the last 20 years?” Elicker noted when the subject arose at last Saturday’s candidate debate. He compared Nemerson’s 48-hour idea to a smoker pledging to report how many cigarettes he smokes every two days, instead of once a month. The person’s still smoking, which is the problem. Nemerson is still avoiding public-financing, Elicker analogized.
City For Sale
The question about identifying fundraisers’ hauls arose because of a choice Nemerson made from the beginning of his campaign: to enlist former city development chief Sal Brancati as a fundraiser. Brancati left office along with other top officials at the turn of the century amid DeStefano administration corruption and ethics scandals, which centered in part on government officials enriching themselves and business-sector campaign donors at the public trough. Brancati was an enthusiastic fundraiser for politicians until the scandals led politicians like DeStefano to distance themselves from him.
The actions of Brancati and fellow soon-to-leave DeStefano aides from that period were the subject of dozens and dozens of news accounts from that period and emerged as issues in the 1999 and 2001 mayoral campaigns.
Brancati did not return calls seeking comment for this story. In an interview this week, Nemerson said he feels comfortable with Brancati’s role as a fundraiser. He praised Brancati’s prior government service; Nemerson, then the head of the Chamber of Commerce, worked with Brancati in the 1990s on development projects.
He was asked about the controversies that dogged Brancati at the time.
“I talked to Sal,” Nemerson said. “He said he didn’t do those things.”
Among the episodes in question, dating back to Brancati’s 1980s City Hall tenure:
• While Brancati worked as DeStefano’s development chief, he simultaneous worked for a politically connected insurance company called Grasso Associates. Brancati and a partner got $75,000 in “finder’s fees” by bringing the firm business from clients who in some cases were also doing business with Brancati at City Hall. An example: developer Bob Matthews, a DeStefano campaign contributor whom Brancati helped get reduced taxes and government help to redevelop the 1 Long Wharf Dr., 300 George St., and 59 Elm Street office buildings. Matthews eventually went belly-up on these projects and fled town. In one instance Brancati personally intervened with the assessor to have Matthews’ tax bill reduced 50 percent, on 300 George. Brancati’s office also arranged a $250,000 loan to Matthews to redevelop a Westville factory; he never did.
• While working in the city development office, Brancati formed a company called MSL Inc with two partners in August 1989. Meanwhile his office was involved in negotiations with Yale-New Haven Hospital to build a new children’s hospital.The partnership took an an option on a small triangular property directly across from the street from the children’s hospital site, before the deal was struck. In February 1991, after the deal was struck, MSL exercised the option to buy the property for $232,000; six days later it resold it to Yale-New Haven for a quick $35,000 profit.
• In 1995 Brancati arranged a $250,000 loan to a Long Wharf produce company—even though its owners owed back taxes. They had contributed money to a DeStefano political action committee. The company took the money, paid its back-tax bill, closed shop, and quickly fell behind on the loan.
• Also in 1995: Through Brancati, DeStefano had the city forgive $3.5 million of an old loan to the Fusco family, developers and key fundraisers.
• In 1997, Brancati arranged more than $300,000 in government loans and grants to Joe Nacca, who owed back taxes and was in the process of pleading guilty to two felonies in an ongoing federal corruption investigation. Paperwork on the loan had Nacca allegedly paying back the money on one loan based on revenues he’d supposedly collected before business would even open. (It never did.) Another loan set Nacca up in business with Joe DeMatteo, a former fellow city official who had just been sprung from jail after serving times on corruption charges; he took the fall for other city officials when he refused to cooperate with the government in the investigation. Brancati’s money helped the pair open a surplus goods store on the Boulevard, which police later raided for selling illegal merchandise.
• September 1996: DeStefano and Brancati conducted an international competition to build a new shopping mall on Long Wharf. They insisted the winner take on Fusco as a partner in the deal, to include $100 million in government subsidies.
• When a Westville restaurant named September’s failed, and owed back taxes, Brancati gave the owner and manager a $250,000 city loan to fix it up and open a new version. The loan needed approval from a government committee. A city-hired lawyer recommended nixing the loan because it violated federal rules. Brancati personally interceded and overruled the recommendation. The loan went through. The business briefly reopened, became a problem nightclub, then shut down. The city lost all the money.
Since leaving government in 2000, Brancati has become a consultant and government lobbyist. Controversy has continued to dog him. An example: He and a partner in 2007 agreed in a Probate Court-brokered settlement to give back $15,000 of proceeds they made on the sale of an East Rock widow’s home — money that was supposed to go towards a fund for “crippled children.” Read about that episode here.
Nemerson On The Record
In an Independent interview, Nemerson addressed both his Brancati alliance and his decision not to extend his reporting idea to include fundraisers like Brancati. Excerpts of the conversation follow:
Independent: Is it more significant to see who gave you $200, or who collected 10 of [those $200 contributions] for you?
Nemerson: It’s an interesting question. Does everybody have to do that?
That was the Van Selden [idea; Nemerson has enlisted 1980s-era Alderman Edwin “Van” Selden to serve as a campaign finance “ombudsman” to independently scrutiny donations.] I wanted every check to go through Van to see who’s this person, so he can keep his own log of who these people were. Van is the one who has that book. Not me. He understands who these people are. An ombudsman person is an intermediary.
But what about the person collecting the checks? Isn’t that more important for the public to know?
I get it. I think in the scheme of things it’s a very important thing. I think it’s a very interesting question. I don’t know how you’d do that.
What if you list who hands in more than one checks or two checks from more than one person? Or who holds a fundraiser?
Does the Democracy Fund do that? Who holds a fundraiser is usually out there. There are usually fundraisers. Don’t you have to report if you have a fundraiser?
It’s not a secret. They invite people.
So you think the average voter knows when Sal Brancati is at, say, the Olive Garden collecting checks for [a campaign]?
We have said we will publish who is giving us money within 48 hours on our website. That is more than any one else is doing. That is what we are doing. If people want to keep changing the system. ... As an individual, I am for as much disclosure as possible. I’m also for a level playing field.
Does that mean you’d rather people not know who’s holding your fund-raising events?
I want everybody to play by the same rules. I don’t think that the total amount of money—obviously I am on record saying the total amount of money raised isn’t the issue; it’s the disclosure. That’s why I’m doing it disclosure.
Is it full disclosure if we don’t find out whom you really owe for raising the real money? Not the $200 check check, but the hat full of 20 or 200 $200 checks?
I am on the record as saying I’m not for sale. I’m going to be bought. The city of New Haven is a $600 million enterprise that is listing to the side that needs to be right, that needs to have new investments made in it, that needs to become a city where every kid can have a good education, where people around the world are waiting to invest in our city. Focusing on $200 checks is just not what people should be focusing on.
What about $200,000 bundles of checks through fund-raising?
Give me the thought logic. Give me the exercise, the thought logic…
Sal Brancati’s history [as a fundraiser and deal-maker and city official]. That affected government. It affected how 300 George got its taxes changed. It affected who got a contract to build the Long Wharf mall. It also harms public confidence in government when someone gets a “finder’s fee” from a [campaign contributor] and developer ...
I have point-blank asked Sal of course these questions. I have no proof that Sal has any kind of corruption.
Let me ask if this is corruption ...
When did Bob Matthews come into town? It was during the John Daniels administration. I introduced him to [then-Mayor] John Daniels. Did I regret it? Of course I did.
In 2001 there was a court file [disclosing the finder’s fee from Matthews] ...
I was long gone by 2001.
What about finder’s fees? That gets back to fundraising. Is that the kind of government you want? Is that how you want your money raised?
When I was at Science Park, a 501(c)3 [Nemerson served as the park’s first vice-president], people would call me up and say , ‘There’s a house on Canal Street. Why don’t you buy it? You know what’s going to happen.’ I never bought anything there. The places where I bought housing was far, far away ... and I lost my shirt.
I personally believe people do not think people should gain by the civic roles you play. You give up things when you want to do things that involve the public trust. That’s how I live my life. That’s the kind of people I have around me.
You have Sal Brancati around raising money—repeating the role that gave the name “City For Sale” that led to the scandals that led to him leaving City Hall ...
The Sal Brancati that I know in the ‘90s was the person working with me trying to get money to save the Park Plaza Hotel. Trying to make sure the mall didn’t go out to Westbrook and Clinton. He was traveling with me to Columbus to talk to the Taubman people [a real estate development firm], who I had helped find in Detroit because of relatives I had there, to make a $150 million investment here [by building a downtown shopping mall], which I know you didn’t believe in ... But there are people who get on a bus in New Haven every day to take a bus to go to the Post Mall to work ...
So you’re OK with a guy who took finder’s fees.
I’m not fine. I talked to Sal. He said he didn’t do those things.
Did you ever read the articles? That’s what kind of mayor you’ll be?
Of course I’ve asked him for proof. He’s shown me letters people have written exonerating him.
If you don’t want to know, people can always show you letters.
I will continue to investigate.
[How about just telling] us how much money people raise for you?
I’m going to tell you who gave us how much money every 48 hours.
When I was working with Sal, he was the best-connected person for [attracting] outside capital [to the city]. Nobody else came close to leverage New Haven to bring in state dollars and outside development money. That’s the Sal Brancati I worked with in the 90s. All I can say, of course I’ll go check it out. The Sal Brancati I knew brought in money and did projects that were very important for money. I’m never been involved with anybody who made any money while in government…
Brancati’s and his City Hall colleagues’ public actions were detailed in more than three dozen news accounts from the period, many in a “City for Sale” series published by the New Haven Advocate. (The Tribune Company, which purchased the weekly newspaper, eventually removed the series along with all other articles from that period from its online archives.) Some of the articles involving Brancati included “He’s Baaaccck!”, Aug. 30, 2001; “City Hall: Where Felons Get Credit,” July 30, 1998; “Names That Make The Mayor Sweat,” May 13, 1999; “The Bucks Start Here,” April 1, 1999; “More Help for a Friend,” July 9, 1998.