Knock Knock: Is It Painters? Or Feds?
by marcia chambers | Jun 5, 2012 9:15 am
Posted to: Legal Writes, State
At 7 a.m., the doorbell rang at the home of state Rep. Pat Widlitz, co-chairwoman of the state General Assembly’s powerful Finance Committee.
She answered the door, still in her bathrobe and wearing slippers. She expected to find deck painters. Not the FBI.
“I had not even brushed my teeth yet,” she recalled of the moment.
It was last Thursday morning. Her husband had just left for the day; painters were scheduled to arrive at her Guilford home to stain her deck. So when she opened her door she thought she would find a painting crew.
Instead she encountered two men dressed in dark suits and talking quietly. “They said they were with the FBI and they said they wanted to talk to me for a little while.”
They introduced themselves and showed her their badges.
Widlitz wasn’t sure whether to believe them. She wasn’t sure whether to open the door.
“My first reaction was how do I know they are from the FBI? Anybody could have a fake badge. But they seemed very serious. They said: ‘We would like to talk to you for a few minutes about a legislative matter.’”
As it turned out the visitors were indeed from the FBI. And they weren’t calling on just Widlitz.
The 7 a.m. call was part of a coordinated effort by FBI agents to interview about one dozen legislators, government officials and staff members across the state at that hour on Thursday, May 31. They wanted to catch them before they headed off for the day. So they fanned out across the state, in pairs, to conduct simultaneous interviews.
Their underlying purpose was to prevent the legislators from comparing notes on the topic they were about to present.
The visits had to do with an unfolding corruption scandal at the state Capitol stemming from the FBI’s decision to go undercover as supposed roll-your-own tobacco business agents and pretend to offer disguised campaign contributions to legislators in order to influence pending legislation affecting the industry. The probe has already produced one arrest and two departures from the Congressional campaign of state House Speaker Chris Donovan.
Among those whose doorbells rang at 7 a.m. were the top Democratic leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives. They included Donald E. Williams, Jr., President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Martin L. Looney, the Senate majority leader, and J. Brendan Sharkey (pictured), the House majority leader. (Click here to read about Sharkey’s decision to cancel a fundraiser because of the scandal.)
The FBI also visited Sen. Eileen Dailey, who co-chairs the Finance Committee, and Sean Williams, a ranking Republican member of the Finance committee. State Rep. Chris Perone, who represents Norwalk, was also interviewed. (His town figures in the case.) When State Tax Commissioner Kevin Sullivan arrived at his office, he found the agents waiting for him, too.
Another legislator who received the FBI was Republican House leader Larry Cafero, who said he is returning $5,000 in checks that were made to a Republican Political Action Committee with the funds used in the sting operation. It is not clear how the funds got there. Cafero said he has been told he is not a target.
Pat Widlitz said the agents did not inform her what the investigation was about. But by the end of the interview she said it was clear that the issue of concealed funds and Speaker Donovan’s Congressional campaign were at the center of the inquiry.
At issue was whether suspect funds from the Donovan campaign were used to try to kill a bill that would impose licensing fees and taxes at roll-your-own (RYO) cigarette stores. As it stands now, customers do not pay a tax on RYO cigarettes, and owners do not have to be licensed.
Eight hours after the sweeping set of 7 a.m. interviews ended, the press office for U.S. Attorney David Fein and Kimberly K. Mertz, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, released a criminal complaint and a press release outlining the federal complaint against Robert Braddock, Jr., then the finance director for the Donovan congressional campaign. The press release was announced at 3:07 p.m. Braddock was charged with conspiring with others to accept campaign contributions, made by one person in the name of another.
The criminal complaint is built on information obtained via secretly recorded conversations with a number of co-conspirators. Braddock and other top Donovan staffers, including campaign manager Josh Nassi, were later fired. The primary for the 5th congressional district takes place on Aug. 14.
Donovan said on Sunday that he wanted to make it absolutely clear that “no one bought my involvement, my position or my influence on the ‘Roll Your Own’ legislation or any other. Period.”
Some interviewed by the FBI serve on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, which had approved the RYO tax bill in April. While the bill got out of committee, an action that is believed to have prompted the Donovan campaign contributions, the bill died before it could be acted on by the General Assembly.
A Conversation At the Kitchen Table
After Widlitz invited the two agents into her home, they sat down at her kitchen table. Over the next two hours, they discussed the legislative process, she said. First, she said, “They made it very clear to me that I was not a target of any investigation.”
In an interview with the Eagle, she said “They said they needed to have some details about the legislative process. And they would not tell me what the investigation was. So I had no idea. There were a lot of questions about time frames and the legislative process, and one particular bill, the RYO cigarettes bill. During their conversation, the agents took notes.”
Widlitz knew the RYO cigarettes bill well. It had come through the Finance Committee, starting on the Senate side. It was a request from the Department of Revenue Services. “Toward the end of the questioning they said to me, ‘You will eventually understand what this is about.’
“And as it got to the end there were questions about Chris Donovan and his involvement in the legislation which, was not at all. I never had a conversation with Chris Donovan about this bill. Not once. Ever.”
The Legislative Process
Explaining the innards of the legislative process took time, Widlitz said, as she attempted to answer all their questions.
“It is difficult to explain to the FBI who more or less logically go from point A to point B to point C about the legislative process, which goes round and round in circles,” she said. “Sometimes it makes no sense to anybody in the outside world.
“And so I told them everything I could about the questions they were asking.
“They were interested in time frames, when I had conversations with various people. They had a lot of questions and as they said toward the end, the questions became more pointed about speaker Donovan and conversations I may have had with him about the RYO bill. For me that was very easy. I said Chris was really very hands off as the speaker in regard to my committee, that we really didn’t have a tax package, so to speak, because we had done the heavy lifting last year . So we didn’t have a lot of conversations with Chris about what we were doing because it was mostly agency requests, it wasn’t major policy. The RYO bill got out of my committee.”
The Last Days of the Session
And then she tried to explain to the agents the madness of the last days of the legislative session when filibustering takes over and bills don’t get passed. “I told them there were many bills, not just that one, but many, many bills that didn’t get passed because they went through one chamber and not the other, or didn’t get called at all. And part of that was the political atmosphere. The minority party (the Republicans) was slowing everything down, filibustering a lot, talking a lot and so the leadership said that the bills that might be talkers (might take a while) were put on the back burner.
“The decision was to move the legislation we could. Toward the end of the session we realized we would not finish everything we needed to, so we put it off to the implementer session scheduled for June 12.”
She said she learned little from the agents about the actual case. “They were interested in the legislative process and who determines what bills get called and when. I explained this bill did not stand out in any way as a bill that did not get called because at least 60 or so pieces of legislation that were waiting to get through and they were kind of important and it didn’t happen for those bills. And that is what the scramble was—to get those that could be implemented, be implemented before the session came to a close May 9.
As part of explaining the process of the bill, she said, “I told them speaker Donovan had never, never interfered with this bill on the committee. I never had a conversation with him about it. We were negotiating the bill within the committee and with the Department of Revenue Services.”
The Future Of The RYO Bill
Widlitz is advocating that the RYO bill be adopted as law at the June 12 session. She said Speaker Donovan’s staff along with the Senate president’s staff were formulating the list about what would be included in the “implementer” that would allow it be considered. Speaker Donovan removed himself from that process and handed it over to the majority leader. “So tomorrow I will have a conversation with the majority leader [Rep. Sharkey] about including this bill or not in the special session and I am certainly pushing for it to be included. It needs to be done,” Widlitz said.
Asked if there was a big lobbying effort for the RYO bill, Widlitz said yes, and that it was heavy at times.
“There were people from the industry that manufacture these machines that came to talk us. There was one person who was very visible who owns two stores, one in Norwalk and one in Orange, that have these machines and she stationed herself outside the hall of the house for the last week of the session. And there was lot of sympathy for her. I would say we were heavily lobbied.”
In the end, Widlitz said there is concern about the RYO shops undercutting other businesses by selling under-priced cigarettes. There is also debate about whether this is actually a manufacturing operation.
“We are saying if they are talking their customers through this process, within eight to 10 minutes this machine produces 200 cigarettes and they are not stamping them with the cigarette stamps that other retail sellers are, then they are. These cigarettes are at least $40 cheaper than regularly processed cartons,” Widlitz said. One other problem: A Superior Court Judge has found that these RYO shops are not manufacturers as long as the customer operates the machine.
After a two-hour long conversation, the two FBI agents were ready to depart. They left Widlitz their cards, saying “I should call them if there was something else I wanted to say,” Widlitz recalled. “It was quite a morning. It is not something that ever happened to me before.”
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Money and corruption are ruining the land, crooked politicians betray the working man, pocketing the profits and treating us like sheep, and we’re tired of hearing promises that we know they’ll never keep.
Of course, Widlitz is supporting the RYO legislation of confiscatory taxes on small business. She said she wanted the Amazon Tax so that Amazon would have the same prices as Main Street small businesses. Now she wants to make Main Street small businesses with much less revenue and high rents, pay the same taxes and meet the same requirements of large companies.
At the end of the day though, Widlitz and those supporting the RYO taxes, really don’t care about small businesses or Main Street or Amazon. They care about the money. It’s just about the money. Widlitz should run her next campaign with that theme - Show Me The Money!