A bitter lawsuit that charges favoritism and illegal lobbying provides a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes communications and inner workings of government at the state Capitol.
The pitched battle between two high-profile Hartford Democrats has been playing out quietly for the past 18 months in a Freedom of Information battle that has made public scores of emails sent and received by former House Speaker Thomas Ritter, who remains one of the most influential behind-the-scenes players in Hartford after finishing his tenure as speaker.
The dispute spilled into public view this week in a civil lawsuit filed against the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority by the consulting firm of Hartford Democratic strategist Matthew J. Hennessy, the former chief of staff to then-Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez.
In 2011, Hennessy's firm sought to win a three-year contract worth more than $250,000 with CRRA, the powerful regional garbage agency. When Hennessy's company failed to get the contract, he started asking why he lost in a public bidding process in which he was never interviewed. When he received no answers, he started seeking information through the FOI process, leading to disclosure of the emails.
More than 1,000 other emails were withheld under attorney-client privilege for Ritter and others during the period from 2006 to 2012.
The lawsuit charges, in strong language, that the bidding process was "a sham.'' It also alleges that CRRA had "predetermined'' that the law and lobbying firm where Ritter works, Brown Rudnick, would get the contract. Ritter's firm already held the contract since 2006, and Hennessy was the only other bidder when it was time for renewal. A dispute arose over exactly when the contract expired, and the suit says the contract was improperly extended.
The suit also says that the awarding of the contract "was the result of favoritism, fraud, and/or corruption'' and charges that Ritter's firm never disclosed an hourly fee that was required in the bid specifications.
The CRRA is not permitted under the law to conduct any lobbying as a quasi-public agency. But the lawsuit says Brown Rudnick had, in fact, lobbied Gov. M. Jodi Rell's budget office for money "for CRRA's closure of the Hartford landfill'' starting in 2006 and later helped "secure a veto from Governor Rell on legislation that would have prevented CRRA from placing a landfill in the town of Franklin'' in June 2009.
CRRA Denies Allegations
In a statement to The Courant, the CRRA said: "Mr. Hennessy's allegations are thoroughly lacking in merit. We are referring this matter to our lawyers, who will vigorously defend CRRA.''
The statement pointed out that Hennessy's company, Tremont Public Advisors, "is represented by CRRA's former law firm, Murtha Cullina, from whom CRRA recovered millions of dollars stemming from the law firm's advice to CRRA on the disastrous Enron matter.''
The trash authority was referring to Murtha Cullina's payment of $16.25 million in 2007 for its role as legal counsel in a failed deal with Enron Corp., which later collapsed under allegations of financial fraud. Murtha Cullina had been the legal counsel for CRRA since it was created in 1973. Then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said that Murtha never saw the Enron loan's "fatal flaws'' and ended up "waving its client over the cliff, instead of warning it away.''
The current lawsuit, however, does not involve Enron and comes more than a decade after the unsecured loan was made to the Houston-based company in 2000.
Ritter, who declined comment on the lawsuit, has repeatedly stated in the past that he has never lobbied for CRRA. In the emails, too, he says the work that he does is not lobbying.
Ritter on Thursday referred questions to a Massachusetts public relations firm, which released a statement that said the lawsuit is "meritless'' and "contains false allegations'' against both CRRA and Brown Rudnick. "At all times, Brown Rudnick and its lawyers have acted strictly in accordance with all prevailing legal, ethical and regulatory requirements,'' the statement said.
Hennessy, though, has a different view.
"The complaint outlines CRRA's multi-year pattern of violating Connecticut statutes and the authority's own procurement policies to eliminate competition and steer contracts required to be competitively bid to a pre-determined bidder,'' Hennessy said in an email.
"Specifically, the complaint details how CRRA engaged in sham bidding processes to award contracts for 'municipal government liaison services' to the law firm of the minority leader of the state House of Representatives, who appoints members of the CRRA board of directors. As a result, lobbyists from the firm advocated with state officials on behalf of CRRA, even though CRRA is banned by statute from retaining contract state lobbyists.''
House Republican leader Larry Cafero, the longtime minority leader, says he is a "contract-income partner'' at Brown Rudnick, as opposed to an equity partner who shares in the firm's profits. Cafero is authorized to choose two members of the CRRA board, which ultimately has authority over the extension of any contracts with Brown Rudnick.
"I'm tired of saying it, but I have absolutely nothing to do with any matter of any client that has dealings with the state,'' said Cafero, referring to questions raised in the past about his activities at Brown Rudnick. "From what I understand, the implication of this lawsuit is I'm in cahoots with members of my firm to better the client, that somehow I'm financially being rewarded by it. That's what it's implying.
"I can say until I'm blue in the face that I'm a real estate attorney. I do land-use stuff. I only get paid on what I work on, and I can only work on — by contract and ethics — matters that have absolutely nothing to do with the state," Cafero said. "I cannot use my elected position to better my law firm, a client, anything, and I have never done so.''
Suit Cites Ritter Emails
The lawsuit cites emails as evidence that Ritter spoke with state officials in "lobbying activities for CRRA,'' but Ritter has always maintained that he never lobbied. He also maintained that just because he is a registered lobbyist for other clients does not mean that he cannot do non-lobbying work for the trash authority.
The emails show that Ritter had discussed the board appointments with Cafero and other top-level legislators at various times and reported back to Thomas D. Kirk, the president of CRRA. In an email slugged "Cafero appointment'' on Dec. 10, 2010, Ritter wrote to Kirk that Cafero "will be appointing Mayor John Harkins of Stratford to replace [Shelton Mayor Mark] Lauretti. He is a real good guy — was Larry's deputy in the House and a good friend. Regards, Tom.''
In 2011, Ritter wrote to Kirk that "the person that Larry wanted to appoint turned it down. He asked if you can send him a list of all towns under 50,000 that are members of CRRA'' to find other candidates representing small towns under the rules of the board.
At another point, Ritter also went back and forth with the office of Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams about board appointments.
"Got your message,'' Ritter wrote to Kirk. "Didn't recall being asked to call Williams' office, but I just called Kevin Graff, his chief of staff, and he pledged that they would get right on it. I also mentioned that we would be happy to supply names if they need it. Tom.''
Kirk also sent an email to the entire board in September 2010 to inform them about West Hartford's Ron Van Winkle being named to the board by Williams before anything was announced.
"Please note that I am not sure this appointment is public knowledge yet as we got this copy through Tom Ritter, and it is dated today,'' Kirk wrote to 20 people regarding van Winkle's appointment.
As two Democrats from the West End of Hartford, Ritter and Hennessy have crossed paths at various times through the years. Though they are clashing over the CRRA contract, they have had friendly relations at times through the years. Ritter and his wife were both longtime friends of Hennessy's late father, Francis, and they attended his recent funeral.
Cafero said in an interview at the state Capitol that he has two appointments to the CRRA board, but he said that is the extent of his involvement with the agency. Cafero appointed a Yale University graduate named Dot Kelly to the board, but he said he received that recommendation from state Rep. Terrie Wood of Darien without personally knowing his nominee.
"I've never met Dot Kelly. I've never spoken to Dot Kelly,'' Cafero said. "If she was standing here, I wouldn't know who Dot Kelly is.''
He added: "That is my total involvement with CRRA. I don't know about a suit. I don't know about a contract. I don't know the price of it. I don't know what it's for. I don't know what they do. I've never worked on a matter concerning CRRA. Period.''
In an email marked "confidential urgent – important," Kirk asked Cafero in June 2008 to talk to Rell about the renomination of Old Saybrook First Selectman Mike Pace as chairman of the CRRA board. Pace's term was running out in 12 days, and Kirk urgently asked Cafero for help.
"Mike wants to be reappointed chair," Kirk wrote. "His leadership and success has been remarkable and are the primary reason the CRRA is not a financial disaster for the state and towns. If not reappointed, most of the directors (I expect all but one) would resign as they would believe, correctly, that the governor's failure to reappoint represents a substantial change in direction and a repudiation of the decisions and the direction they have charted for the past 6 years."