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Nemerson Tackles Transparency

by Paul Bass | Apr 26, 2013 3:10 pm

(19) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Thomas MacMillan Photos (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.

* * * *

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?

No.

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?

No.

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.

But seriously…

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.

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posted by: anonymous on April 26, 2013  4:26pm

Unacceptable—but the Fernandez and Harp “Big Money” machines are going to be even more of an affront to democracy.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 26, 2013  4:49pm

“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 . . .

“I am for as much disclosure as possible,” Nemerson said. “I’m also for a level playing field.”” [emphasis mine]

That’s not really true, is it? “No one else is doing that” isn’t really a justification considering that three of the other candidates in the race have agreed to collect only small individual donations and eschew committee and PAC money.

If evidence arises that they’re employing “bundlers” then that would be newsworthy.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on April 26, 2013  6:07pm

BRING BACK BRANCATI!
VOTE for NEMERSON!

posted by: P Christopher Ozyck on April 26, 2013  6:47pm

Smart move Matt.  I have been waiting to see the take on Sundays brancatti fundraiser at Greek Olive . Bucket full of cash and checks .

posted by: FrontStreet on April 26, 2013  8:46pm

Seems to me that politicians in the New Haven machine are so used to the chicago-style pay-to-play (or Philadelphia, or DC or Providencs), that they don’t even see why it matters. It’s the way they believe municipalities work (similar to certain regions of southern europe, where pay-to-play has had equally disastrous effects on budgets and economic development).  And so we have bizarre posts saying “this is the way things get done” when “the way things get done” in New Haven is deeply dysfunctional.

posted by: factsifter on April 26, 2013  10:05pm

Matt, you sound too nice, too honest to be Mayor of this brutal town called New Haven.  Good Luck to you.

posted by: Curious on April 27, 2013  7:10am

This guy’s off my list.  It’sa shame because I was really optimistic about him and considered a viable alternative to Justin Elicker.

Reading all this about Brancati, and knowing that Nemerson knew his past in detail, really hits home.  Washing your hands of someone after your association becomes unpopular doesn’t change that you picked them in the first place, and Nemerson isn’t disavowing Brancati. 

It sounds more like he’s pushing him into the background with statements like “he has no plans to make public the identities of the supporters who hold fundraisers and otherwise go around collecting contributions .”

So Brancati isn’t officially on the payroll, but if he rounds up tons of cash he can still funnel it to Nemerson…just off the record.  That’s even worse.

posted by: abg22 on April 27, 2013  9:56am

You only need to google “Connecticut mayor penitentiary” to understand that there is a tremendous need for greater transparency in the financing of municipal elections. Obviously this should not be a matter of individual candidates voluntarily deciding to appoint an ombudsman or go beyond existing statutory disclosure requirements. The entire disclosure system needs to be moved into the 21st century. Any citizen can, with the click of a mouse, access comprehensive and searchable campaign finance disclosure information for federal and state races. Donor information for CT General Assembly candidates, who may represent less than 20% the number of constituents represented by a big-city mayor, can be accessed—without getting out of one’s pajamas—through the State Elections Enforcement Commission’s online “eCRIS” database. While municipal candidates use SEEC forms, their donor information does not appear in the database. A reporter (or opposition researcher) has to appear at the town hall and request finance disclosure documents from the town clerk. These forms are not searchable, may be hundreds of pages long, and are sometimes barely legible. It would be nice to believe there are enough journalists to perform adequate oversight of all the local races in the state, but let’s not kid ourselves.

It’s time for the oversight function to be crowd-sourced by making it mandatory for all municipal candidates to file their campaign finance forms online, and for this information to be included in eCRIS so that John Q. Citizen can quickly and conveniently find out where the politicians who represent him—at all levels of government—are getting their bread buttered. The cost of this common-sense reform is minimal and the public benefit would be substantial.

posted by: robn on April 27, 2013  11:31am

“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.”

Incorrect. For this to be MORE than everyone else is doing, Mr Nemerson, (and Mr Fernandez and Sen Harp) would refuse donation totals greater than $370.
THATS A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

posted by: David S Baker on April 27, 2013  12:18pm

Moral relativity. Dicey stuff.

posted by: taodhdaodh on April 27, 2013  4:45pm

Matt does seem like a decent guy with some good ideas. The Brancati connection is a deal-breaker, though. There are other decent guys in this race with good ideas who aren’t already beholden to shady folks right out of the gate. That said, I don’t think we should let Fernandez and Harp off the hook just because they’re less forthright about their own potential puppet-masters. Hopefully, NI will put equal pressure on all candidates to reveal their bundlers.

posted by: GoodNatured on April 27, 2013  7:25pm

>And so we have bizarre posts saying “this is the way things get done” when “the way things get done” in New Haven is deeply dysfunctional.<

Amen. We really, REALLY need somebody from outside the system to clean this up.

It’s long past time.

posted by: Burbel on April 28, 2013  3:52pm

State donor forms include a space to identify whether the contributions were made at a fundraiser or not, and which fundraisers. Donors and campaigns frequently fail to comply with this disclosure requirement, as is also the case with employer and status information on the same forms. Nemerson is pretty inept at handling the examination above, but he’s basically got it right - if bundlers aren’t required under the rules, trying to hold him to a higher standard is wrong. He is also getting it right with his immediate disclosure approach. This is the fastest way to hold candidates accountable for where their support is coming from, and Krayeske ought to push for this level of disclosure from all candidates immediately. Elicker particularly is making much of this issue - he should step up and match Nemerson’s commitment and show he is as serious about transparency.
As someone else suggested earlier, the reason for a constitutional protection of the press is because public disclosure is the only real check on the exercise of power. No system of public financing will suffice when the supreme court has ruled that money is speech, and reenforced it with the citizens united ruling.

posted by: beyonddiscussion on April 28, 2013  10:32pm

For Nemerson’s sake I hope he gets out of this race soon. This is embarrassing. Promising to bring back Brancati to City Hall is breathtakingly bad judgment.

posted by: William Kurtz on April 29, 2013  9:04am

Two journalistic observations:

1. Are we really at the point where “the turn of the century” can be used to talk about thirteen years ago?

2. Kudos to Paul Bass. That interview should be an embarrassment for Mr. Nemerson (letters? And Brancati said he didn’t do it? Seriously?) but should be a textbook example of how a reporter doesn’t have to let an interview subject off the hook when he’s trying to avoid the hard questions. It’s like “the pass and fell incenséd points/Of mighty opposites”.

posted by: Curious on April 29, 2013  9:28am

I love this article, BTW, this is great reporting.

****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.*****

That is 100% a dodge right there, the candidate is not answering the question. That tells me he fully intends not to disclose as much information as he could.

Having some guy who has a history of being at least accused of corruption run around collecting money from people for you, and keeping it less than completely transparent, is crooked.  It’s just crooked, and if you’re willing to do that while running for mayor, there is absolutely no reason not to continue to be crooked once you’re in the seat.

NO PAY TO PLAY. 

It’s time New Haven was run by the people who live here, not people who want to profit off of us!

posted by: William Kurtz on April 29, 2013  10:14am

Thanks also for clearing up the mystery of those old Advocate articles disappearing from the internet. I’ve looked for some stuff from those days from time to time and was never able to find them on the site. It’s a loss, if you ask me.

How does copyright work for things like that? Does a journalist maintain any rights, or can a publishing company just suppress anything it wants?

[Bass: Not sure. In any case, the public library has all the old issues.]

posted by: HhE on April 29, 2013  11:11am

Mr. Nemerson’s candidacy rather reminds me of a poorly thought-out, bad dance.  He picks Mr. Brancati to be in charge of the money, without
thinking through what that will represent.  The splash back from that bad choice prompts him to add the layer of Mr. Van Selden, and 48 hour reporting.  (put more paint on the poorly hung sheet-rock)  Then get your original problem, Mr. Brancati to tell everyone, “I am not a crook.”

Imagine him as mayor?  The PR staff would double at every lawsuit, and the legal bills would jump art every investigative report.  Never mind John 2.0, this would be the pirated version of John—with all the bugs still left in.

A friend of mine who is a lawyer, will ask his clients, “What happened?”
After they tell him their story, he then asks, “So, what will the police
say happened.”  Then he gets the truth.

Seriously, drop out soonest.  The old guard is lining up between Ms. Harp and Mr. Fernandez.  The people who want to take our city back from the brink are back people like Justin.

When I tried to comment earlier today, the post was rejected because of the fourth paragraph.  I credit Mr. Bass with contacting me, and explaining their objection.  Here I go with an edited version. 

In an earlier thread, I had said I had never heard of Mr. Nemerson.  I
now believe that is not the case.  If I am correct, I meet him once, at
Alfreda Edwards house, for a Mayoral debate two years ago.  He game me a ride home.

posted by: Curious on April 29, 2013  11:19am

Does DeStefano have a comment on Sal’s re-entrance to New Haven politics, and can anyone dredge up and scan those Advocate articles from the library?

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