By SUSAN HAIGH and JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Robert Braddock Jr. was unknown in Connecticut politics when he came to work on House Speaker Chris Donovan’s congressional campaign, but full of promises that he was an “accomplished finance director” with a record of raising millions of dollars.
The 33-year-old Marine came on board last year when Donovan, a former union and community organizer of modest financial means, faced pressures to raise a lot of money to compete in the state’s hottest contest _ the 5th House District race.
The U.S. House seat is one of only two in New England that does not involve an incumbent. The other is the House seat held by veteran lawmaker Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who has announced he is retiring from office.
Now Braddock is at the center of a campaign fundraising scandal, and Donovan’s decision to hire him threatens to disrupt the ambitions of the Democrats’ endorsed candidate and possibly give Republicans a chance to re-take control of the northwestern Connecticut district.
“I did sign off on hiring key campaign staff,” Donovan said last week, several days after federal agents arrested Braddock on charges of conspiring with others to hide the source of $20,000 in campaign contributions. “If anyone is responsible for those decisions, it’s me. And I regret each of those hires.”
On Sunday, Donovan said on WFSB-TV’s “Face the State” that his aides let him down.
“They had a job to do and they didn’t do it correctly,” he said.
Braddock’s attorney, Frank Riccio III, maintains his client is innocent. He points out that Braddock has no criminal record and served in the military. Braddock has not spoken publicly about the case.
Donovan has denied any knowledge of the alleged scheme, saying he only found out about the investigation when the FBI called him for an “out-of-the-blue interview.” He said he was shocked to read the next day that Braddock had been arrested, saying he felt “punched in the gut.”
Donovan acknowledged that fundraising is his least favorite part of running for Congress and that he’s never heard of some of the more than 8,500 donors to his campaign.
When the charges came down, Donovan fired three staff members including Braddock and campaign manager and former legislative aide Joshua Nassi. The Hartford Courant, citing unnamed sources, identified Nassi as one of three alleged co-conspirators mentioned in a federal affidavit concerning Braddock’s arrest.
Union supporter Leo Canty, who has worked on numerous state campaigns, said Donovan “is not the kind of guy that says `let’s break the law to get the money.”’
But one of Donovan’s GOP opponents criticizes him for apparently not knowing what was happening among his staff.
“Even if the facts reveal that the Speaker was completely unaware of what was taking place in his finance office, that fact speaks to the manner in which he’s conducting his campaign and that’s relevant to voters and to the process,” said state Sen. Andrew Roraback, the Republicans’ endorsed candidate in the 5th District primary.
Donovan’s campaign won’t comment on how Braddock was hired. Tom Swan, Donovan’s new campaign manager, said the House Speaker felt pressure to raise money last year, trailing his two Democratic challengers in this Aug. 14 primary.
Donovan has raised $1 million for the primary race, with $640,000 in cash on hand, according to recent campaign filings; former state Rep. Elizabeth Esty has $1.2 million and $801,074 in cash; and Daniel Roberti has $1.1 million and $508,236 in cash.
“He got a later start,” Swan said. “He’s not wealthy as his opponents. So he had a bigger challenge getting into it … Chris has always organized with limited means and we shouldn’t expect this race to be any different. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.”
An online bio for a company Braddock worked with, Progressive Capital Strategies, describes Braddock as “politically savvy and exceptionally motivated,” “an accomplished finance director and fundraising consultant” who raised “millions of dollars” to help Democratic House and Senate candidates in 2010.
The Associated Press confirmed Braddock served in the Marines from 1997 to 2001. He received the Kosovo Campaign Medal, awarded to those who participated in or were in direct support of the Kosovo operations.
The online bio said he graduated from Full Sail University, a for-profit school in Winter Park, Fla., that offers both online and on-campus classes in art, music and film. An apparent LinkedIn page claims he studied film and video production from 2001-2003, and worked in the Internet industry on a website being redesigned to focus on politics. The AP determined the website was a former porn site.
Braddock spent four months raising money for North Carolina Democratic congressional candidate Harry Taylor in 2008. “He did fine,” Taylor told the AP. “He was a nice guy.”
While the LinkedIn page describes Braddock as the “finance director” who “raised more money than any previous Democratic campaign in the district,” Taylor said he didn’t have a “finance director” and Braddock was essentially a clerk or administrative assistant who helped with fundraising efforts.
Braddock worked as a finance director for Atlanta mayoral candidate Mary Norwood in 2008 and 2009. Norwood said Braddock was part of a team that raised $2 million. She said he was reliable and did not cause her any concern.
Public court records online also show Braddock had a $22,018 “judgment/lien” filed against him by American Express in March 2009.
Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.