Contractors help fund mayor’s run

New Haven’s ongoing $1.1 billion public school construction program is providing local kids with resources ranging from marine biology labs to visual arts studios. But the project also seems to be providing Mayor John DeStefano Jr. with a major source of campaign funding.

As a candidate for Connecticut governor, DeStefano has managed to raise over $2.2 million from individuals, putting him nearly $1 million ahead of Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, currently the only other Democratic contender in the 2006 gubernatorial race. Among the leading contributors to DeStefano’s campaign are a large group of architects and construction company executives whose firms have been awarded lucrative contracts from the city of New Haven. Together, these donors comprise over 10 percent of those who have donated the legal maximum of $2,500 to the campaign.

Legally, state and city contractors are allowed to contribute to political campaigns in the state of Connecticut — even when the candidate has influence over awarding contracts. While overt agreements to exchange contracts for contributions would constitute corrupt practices, experts said such agreements are extremely rare and nearly impossible to prove.

Yesterday Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a popular Republican who has not yet decided whether she will run in 2006, called for a special session on campaign finance reform to be held next month in the state legislature. The legislature will consider public funding for election campaigns and possibly banning contributions from lobbyists and state contractors.

DeStefano has lobbied for clean election reform at both the state and city levels, in particular advocating public election financing. Though he said he supports limitations on the contributions that can be made by lobbyists and contractors, he acknowledged that he has accepted and sought out contributions from some of the city’s contractors.

“Until the system changes, we’ll work within the system,” DeStefano said.

Andy Sauer, executive director of clean elections advocacy group Common Cause of Connecticut, said it was common for advocates of campaign finance reform to legally accept contributions from contractors. Sauer attributed this seeming inconsistency to the importance of obtaining campaign funding.

“The guy has to run an election campaign,” Sauer said. “He’s got to go out there and raise money.”

In this regard, DeStefano’s campaign has been effective.

At architectural firm Herbert S. Newman and Partners, which designed New Haven’s Nathan Hale School and two others, at least four employees have donated a total of $7,800 to DeStefano for Connecticut. Architects at S/L/A/M Collaborative, the firm responsible for designing Hillhouse High School, donated $6,000. Even famed architect Cesar Pelli, whose firm is designing the New Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, personally contributed $2,500.

The list goes on: out of 30 New Haven school construction projects that have been assigned to architects, at least 25 are contracted to firms with employees who contributed to DeStefano’s campaign. All told, architects working for firms affiliated with public school construction projects have contributed over $50,000 to DeStefano’s campaign effort.

Executives for construction firms working on the school projects have been just as ready to fork cash over to the DeStefano campaign’s coffers. At least four executives at the Fusco Corporation, which is responsible for six school projects, have each donated $2,500; three employees at A. Prete Construction, responsible for two projects, have done the same. Six companies responsible for construction on the vast majority of the school projects have at least one executive who contributed the legal maximum to DeStefano’s campaign, bringing in over $30,000.

DeStefano’s opponent, Malloy, has also received several campaign contributions from city contractors, such as two $2,500 contributions from Viking Construction officials. But Stamford, where Malloy is mayor, has no ongoing city construction projects on the scale of New Haven’s.

Several of the architects and construction contractors who contributed to DeStefano’s campaign said their support for his campaign was unrelated to their firms’ city contracts.

Richard Munday, an architect at Herbert S. Newman, said that while he could not speculate as to why so many architects have contributed to DeStefano’s campaign, his decision to contribute $2,300 stemmed from his appreciation for the work the mayor has done to improve New Haven.

“I have personally supported John DeStefano for very many years in his political campaigns, and I believe that he has done a great deal for the city,” Munday said.

James McManus, a $2,500 contributor and architect at S/L/A/M Collaborative, said he was never approached by DeStefano about giving money.

“There was never any sense of quid pro quo,” McManus said.

Quid pro quo relationships with state contractors sent Connecticut’s former Gov. John Rowland — who not only accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, but also various personal gifts from state contractors — to jail on corruption charges. And Rowland’s was not the only recent corruption scandal in Connecticut. Earlier this month, former state Sen. Ernie Newton admitted to wrongdoing that could send him to prison for a maximum of 35 years. Bridgeport and Waterbury have seen a series of mayoral corruption scandals, and even DeStefano’s opponent, Malloy, was only recently cleared of wrongdoing after undergoing a lengthy federal investigation.

DeStefano said that while campaign contributions from state contractors created a serious problem for Rowland, he thought no such conflict of interest has developed in his administration.

“That’s not the way we do business here in New Haven,” DeStefano said. “The difference is character and values.”

For the most part, DeStefano has managed to avoid any implications of corruption during his decade in City Hall. A notable exception occurred in 1998, when a scandal broke over a zero-interest loan his then-executive assistant, current Ward 4 Alderwoman Andrea Jackson-Brooks, received from the Livable City Initiative. Controversy ignited over a number of other controversial loans from LCI, and in the ensuing scandal, which involved an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, DeStefano fired three top aides, including Jackson-Brooks.

But DeStefano’s popularity and reputation quickly bounced back.

Local journalist Paul Bass, who has closely followed and frequently criticized DeStefano’s administration for years, said that while exchanging contracts for political contributions is standard practice in New Haven, he does not believe DeStefano has ever used his position for personal financial gain.

“It’s understood that if you want contract work you write a check to the mayor’s governor campaign,” Bass said. “That is the root of all the corruption scandals we’ve had in Connecticut, the pay-to-play politics. The difference is DeStefano has never shown evidence that he takes money. And that’s important.”

New Haven’s public school construction program, the largest per capita expenditure of its kind in the nation, began in 1995, a year after DeStefano took office. The projects, paid for over 80 percent by the state government, range from $7 million to over $60 million.

Susan Weisselberg, New Haven’s school construction program director, said building contracts are awarded to companies by subcommittees of the 15-member Citywide School Building Committee, which is chaired by DeStefano. After requests for qualifications are advertised, the subcommittees interview selected respondents and make recommendations to the committee, which takes a final vote.

“We have city departments, city alderpeople, and the Board of Education working cooperatively on these projects,” Weisselberg said. “We work closely with [the mayor's] departments … There is a role that City Hall plays in oversight and input.”

Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez, who sits on the School Building Committee, said that in practice, DeStefano has the power to give school construction contracts to the firms of his choice, since he appoints all the members of the committee except for three members selected from the Board of Aldermen. But Perez said he had no way of determining whether or not contracts have in fact been exchanged for campaign contributions.

“There definitely is an appearance issue,” Perez said. “Now whether or not there’s a reality issue, I don’t know.”

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