FBI goes back to the future in Bridgeport
BRIDGEPORT — In February 2015, motorists approaching downtown from I-95 southbound were greeted with an FBI-sponsored billboard encouraging potential tipsters with information on corrupt activities to phone a 1-800 number.
Four years later, that billboard is long gone, but federal authorities are now in Bridgeport working to uncover municipal wrongdoing.
FBI agents have since the fall been probing alleged criminal activities involving scrap metal sales by city employees and allegations of no-bid public facilities contracts. An anonymous letter sent to City Council members in November is believed to have caught the FBI’s interest and resulted in that agency taking over from the local police.
How far and wide the criminal probe will go is the big question looming over Connecticut’s largest city.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, at the end of the day, there’s something more complex — other things we’re not aware of at this point,” said former U.S. Attorney Stanley Twardy, Jr., a partner with the Day Pitney law firm in Stamford.
Twardy added that knowing John Henry Durham, the current U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, “as an attorney and how he operates, there may well be a lot more to this than meets the eye.”
Another former law enforcement official who did not wish to be identified, said, “You don’t really know until you get involved in these (cases) where they might lead. ... Sometimes you may have someone individually involved. Other times there’s a conspiracy involving multiple individuals. The question for investigators is how large is that activity and what other information you might learn while investigating it?”
Last week federal authorities subpoenaed four years of documents dating back to Jan. 1, 2015, related to scrap metal sales and also to the city’s dealings with three contractors identified in the anonymous letter — VAZ Quality Works, Seaview Equipment Sales and Rental, which was founded by one of the Vaz brothers, and G. Pic. & Sons Construction.
The ex-law enforcement official noted that the United States Code, Title 18, Section 666, allows the FBI to launch a municipal corruption investigation if a city employee steals or misuses $5,000 or more worth of public property, and if that city or town has received $10,000 or more worth of federal aid annually.
Documents obtained by Hearst Connecticut Media in December showed nearly $35,500 worth of cash-for-scrap metal transactions between city workers and Bidgeport-based P.C. Metals that should have been turned over to the finance department.
Only about $10,000 of that $35,500 has so far been accounted for.
“And there’s no question the city of Bridgeport has received more than $10,000 in federal funding,” said the former-law enforcement official.
This source also said that, traditionally, federal authorities have “taken responsibility for investigating and prosecuting public corruption — even what some people may think of as low level municipal corruption” in Connecticut because the state “isn’t really set up to run complex white collar investigations.”
“If there are subpoenas, that means a grand jury is investigating the matter,” the former law enforcement official added. “A federal grand jury allows law enforcement authorities to compel documents, sworn testimony, give immunity to witness to secure their testimony. All of these investigative techniques are not really available to state investigators for the most part.”
Municipal rap sheet
Twardy said the FBI may also be interested in Bridgeport because of the city’s shady past.
“It could be, ‘Listen, there have been issues in Bridgeport before. Let’s see what’s going on there. Maybe this is the tip of the iceberg’,” Twardy speculated.
For example, in 2003 then-Mayor Joe Ganim was convicted of federal corruption charges for running a pay-to-play operation out of city government.
Ganim served seven years in prison, then waged an astounding political comeback in 2015, convincing voters to return him to office for a new four year term.
He is now seeking re-election. That FBI billboard appeared not long after Ganim began exploring a political comeback, though an FBI spokesman at the time said the advertisement’s location in Bridgeport — others were placed in Hartford, Waterbury and Hamden — had nothing to do with Ganim.
November’s anonymous letter did not target Ganim. A follow-up letter sent the City Council late last year did accuse him of subsequently trying to “cover up” for Public Facilities Director John Ricci, a political ally who, like Ganim, is close with Democratic Town Chairman Mario Testa.
Ganim following an internal review prompted by the unfolding scrap metal scandal recently took two weeks of pay and two weeks of paid vacation away from Ricci, and fired Deputy Public Facilities Director Jose Tiago, who has since hired a criminal defense attorney. Ganim also terminated Jose DeMoura, who managed recycling.
John Fabrizi was City Council President when Ganim was busted and succeeded him as Bridgeport’s chief elected official. Fabrizi said it is unfortunate the FBI is back in the city, but sees plenty of motivation for the agency.
“I would assume they’re not pleased with the chain of events — someone whom they put a case against and went to jail (is) back in office,” Fabrizi said. Fabrizi also noted a retired FBI agent who helped convict Ganim, Ed Adams, supported the fallen mayor’s re-election in 2015 and was given a job as a Ganim aide.
Fabrizi, who recently moved to Florida, said many Bridgeport residents he is in touch with similarly believe for those reasons the FBI is more than happy to take another shot at Ganim.
But the former law enforcement source dismissed that line of thinking, stating, “Never in my experience was there any suggestion that this city has a reputation or that person has a reputation or anything like that. And it wouldn’t be appropriate for that to play a role.”
Park City déjà vu
There are a few similarities between the beginnings of the investigation that took down Ganim’s first administration in 2003 and the FBI’s current delving into scrap metal sales and contracts.
Both probes were triggered by anonymous complaints.
Ganim in 2001, seeking to separate himself from the scandal, announced he was organizing a special committee to review dozens of city contracts for possible wrongdoing.
And over the last several weeks Ganim and his staff have made efforts to tighten city procurement policies, including having Adams, the former FBI agent, assigned to monitor the purchasing department.
On Friday Ganim announced another measure. He said the City Attorney’s Office had hired a consultant from Guidepost Solutions, a New York-based, globally operating firm with expertise in investigations, compliance, monitoring, security and technology, to review “some of the problems and challenges that have come to light” and recommend what Bridgeport can do to avoid them in the future.
Fabrizi said he has no doubt from past experience the FBI “will do their due diligence” in Bridgeport.
“Obviously they came here for a reason,” he said. “And from their past investigation here ... they look under every rock. And you don’t know how many snakes are going to come out from under those rocks. So it starts in one place, and branches out in multiple areas.”