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Business partner of ex-lawmaker charged in federal probe

November 4, 2021 GMT

A business partner of a former Connecticut state representative charged with misusing more than $600,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds was arrested Thursday in the same criminal investigation, federal officials said.

John Bernardo, of West Haven, was arrested on a federal criminal complaint alleging wire fraud and conspiracy. He appeared before a federal judge in New Haven and posted $250,000 bail, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Bernardo’s lawyer, Tara Knight, said her 65-year-old client has no criminal record and was a firefighter for 26 years.

“They’re serious charges, and it really is an obligation for an attorney to let the case play out in the courtroom, not in the media,” Knight said. “So I’m going to let it play out in the courtroom.”

According to state business records, Bernardo and former state Rep. Michael DiMassa, a West Haven Democrat, are members of Compass Investment Group LLC. DiMassa was arrested by FBI agents on Oct. 20 and charged with wire fraud.

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Federal authorities said Compass Investment Group received more than $600,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds from the city of West Haven for consulting, lobbying and legal services to its health department that were never provided.

DiMassa has resigned from the legislature, as well as from his position as an aide to the West Haven City Council. His lawyer has declined to comment on the allegations.

Bernardo is listed on West Haven’s website as a housing specialist for the city’s Community Development Administration. Federal investigators said he is on administrative leave from that job.

According to an arrest warrant prepared by an FBI agent, three deposits totaling more than $45,000 were made into Bernardo’s personal bank account via cash, as well as checks and wire transfers, from Compass’s bank accounts, with each deposit coming only days after Compass received payments from West Haven.

DiMassa’s arrest came a week after the city’s mayor raised concerns about possible fraudulent spending of the city’s share of federal pandemic funds, and prompted calls from legislative Republicans for greater state oversight of the huge sums of federal money being provided to municipalities.

Federal investigators said DiMassa wrote Compass checks to himself ranging from nearly $11,900 to $87,650. Authorities said he also made cash withdrawals from the company’s bank accounts ranging from $8,000 to $10,000, with some of them coming around the same time as cash “buy-ins” of gambling chips at Mohegan Sun Casino.

West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi said in a statement Thursday that she is “sick to my stomach over this alleged theft.”

“I want all those individuals involved to be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” she said. “If found guilty, they need to go to jail.”