Last May, Salvatore Verderame purchased a $125 ticket to a fund raiser at a local restaurant for the re-election campaign of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. Although he has been a longtime New Haven School Board administrator, Verderame, like many of his fellow city employees, did not actually attend the event, held at the Rusty Scupper seafood restaurant.

“It might have been a breakfast. Maybe it was a dinner. I can’t really recall,” Verderame said.

Verderame is one of 111 city employees who donated money to the mayor’s campaign, many through $125 tickets for the same May 10 fund raiser. Like some city employees, who in total contributed $16,125 to DeStefano’s $171,175 war chest, Verderame said he chose to purchase the ticket because of his support for the mayor.

But DeStefano’s challenger, state Sen. Martin Looney, viewed the number of city employees giving money to the mayor — their boss — with suspicion.

“City employees are certainly free to give money,” said Jason Bartlett, Looney’s campaign manager. “The question is if they’re giving willingly or being intimidated into giving.”

A Yale Daily News investigation of campaign finance documents from the two campaigns found 111 of the mayor’s contributors listed their employer as the city of New Haven, including 30 who, like Verderame, worked for the school board. Though Looney contends the mayor’s campaign relies on intimidation tactics to encourage employees to donate, those who contributed to DeStefano’s campaign said they gave of their own free will.

“There was no pressure,” said New Haven Fire Chief Dennis Daniels. “It was a personal matter for me. He’s a good man. I believe he’d do a good job, and I wanted to support him in his campaign.”

Others said they were surprised by accusations that DeStefano’s campaign obtained money through intimidation.

“I thought it was pretty funny, as did most of the other people I know,” said Thomas Ude Jr., deputy corporation counsel for the city. “That’s not the atmosphere at City Hall at all. When people are at campaign events or things like that at City Hall, it’s because the want to be there, not because they’re afraid.”

But Looney maintained some employees felt obliged to give money but did not feel safe speaking out.

“I believe there is both overt and implied pressure being brought. It perhaps has more to do with the contractors than with the employees, but it has some bearing on employees as well,” Looney said. “I’ve heard reports. People who would not want their names used have told me they’re doing what they’re doing out of fear.”

Bartlett, who raised similar questions about the ethics of fund raising from City Hall in the last mayoral race two years ago, when he managed DeStefano-challenger James Newton’s campaign, expressed particular concern about Superintendent Reginald Mayo’s fund-raising efforts.

“The superintendent has acted as rainmaker for the mayor in terms of holding fund raisers and telling educators they have to give to the mayor’s campaign,” Bartlett said. “We take issue with that.”

But Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, director of communications for New Haven Public Schools, said she thinks the contribution en masse of school board officials is nothing alarming.

“It’s pretty much routine for mayoral campaigns in every city,” she said. “City employees who support the direction of the city tend to support the direction of the mayor,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unusual.”

Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99, a member of DeStefano’s campaign, said Looney’s attacks represent unfounded claims aimed more at shifting focus from the mayor’s widespread support in the city than raising legitimate concerns.

“They’re making a political issue out of this because they simply don’t have the level of support that we do in this community, and as a result are not going to be able to raise the same amount of money. They’re resorting to cynical campaigning gimmicks.”

Gonzalez added that Looney’s position on the state senate’s Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee, and particularly the high proportion of money from political action committees in his coffers, leaves Looney in no position to question his opponent’s fund-raising efforts.

“This is a guy that helps dole out $4.17 billion in tax expenditure credits every year,” Gonzalez said. “He clearly has relationships that he has exploited in Hartford through political business, especially given the high amount of PAC money.”

Looney’s campaign raised 16.8 percent of its $73,700 from PACs, compared to 3.8 percent of DeStefano’s $171,175 which came from PACs.

For all the flying accusations, city employees nearly unanimously said their contributions are driven by nothing but loyalty.

“I guess just buying a ticket was like a donation to the mayor,” said Michael Fumiatti, purchasing agent for the city, who attended the DeStefano’s campaign kickoff fund raiser in November. “There was absolutely no pressure. We never have to do anything we don’t want to do. It was strictly voluntary. We’re just supporting our boss.”

— YDN Staff Reporter Brian Lee contributed to this report.

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