Wall of conflict: Trumbull Republicans, Democrats square off again
An exterior wall at Madison Middle School that was fixed in the summer of 2013 has become the latest point of controversy in the seemingly never-ending battle between leaders in the town’s Democratic and Republican parties.
Trumbull Democratic Town Committee Chairman Tom Kelly claimed in a press release Friday, March 18, that the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) fined the Trumbull Republican Town Committee $2,410 last month for accepting campaign contributions from a local construction company — Milford-based Bismark Construction Company Inc. — that is barred under state law from making such contributions.
Kelly said that Bismark Construction holds a prequalification certificate from the state Department of Revenue Services, which means it has formal standing as a state contractor.
“State election law prohibits state contractors from contributing to local political town committees,” Kelly said.
RTC Chairman Paul Lavoie told The Times Monday that Bismark’s owners, Jeffrey and Jeanette Raucci, did not report that they were state contractors at the time of the donation and that the RTC was unaware of their status.
He said that their donations to the party’s campaign have since been returned.
"The Trumbull Democrats have nothing better to do with their time than to fish through seven years of our SEEC filings and find our one mistake,” Lavoie said. “The voters of Trumbull once again chose wisely in electing Republican leadership for our town.
“While Republicans are busy investing our time to make Trumbull a great place to live, work and play the Democrats are spending their time finding our one mistake,” he added. “It's unfortunate that they can't spend time on issues that add value to our community.”
According to a decision signed on Feb. 1, 2016 by SEEC Executive Director Michael Brandi, former RTC Treasurer Carl Scarpelli was ordered to remit $2,410 from the the RTC’s checking account for deposit — without further penalty — into the Connecticut General Fund by no later than Feb. 8.
In addition, Jeffrey and Jeanette Raucci were penalized $750 and $500, respectively, in a separate decision signed by Brandi on Feb. 16 for making four contributions in 2009, 2010, and 2011 to the RTC.
Each SEEC decision stemmed from two separate complaints that were filed by Trumbull Democratic Town Committee Treasurer Lisa Labella in 2014.
“These contributions were clearly a violation of state election law,” she said in the release.
The DTC release, which stated that Bismark received a no-bid waiver to repair the damaged wall at Madison because of its campaign contributions, drew the ire of First Selectman Tim Herbst, who called the allegations “outlandish.”
“It is truly unfortunate and sad that Trumbull Democrats are all hatred, all the time,” he told The Times Monday.
“The bid waiver in question was for an emergency repair at Madison Middle School when a wall had detached from the school building,” he added. “The situation was in fact so dire you could see open air from the second floor.”
Herbst said that a no-bid waiver request for the $200,000 project, which he signed on July 26, 2013, was the only method to fix the wall in time before the next school year.
“Independent engineers concluded that exigent circumstances existed to take immediate action,” the first selectman explained. “Had the job been formally bid, it would have taken 60 to 90 days to correct the problem and school would not have opened on time.”
“Sadly, the Board of Education’s facilities department knew about this condition for a year and did nothing,” Herbst said. “This was confirmed by the building department, and the Town of Trumbull had to step in and handle this emergency because of the inability of our former BOE Facilities Director, Al Barbarotta, to properly handle the situation.”
Maria Pires, the town’s director of finance, approved the no-bid waiver request for the emergency repairs on Aug. 2, 2013 after receiving an explanation of the situation from Public Works Director John Marsilio.
“Over the past week, it has been determined that five sections of exterior wall at the Madison Middle School (MMS) have bowed out,” Marsilio stated in the letter. “The town's ‘on call’ structural engineering Firm, DeStefano & Chamberlain Inc. were retained by the town's Building Official, Graham Bisset, to investigate the issue. On July 22, 2013, DeStefano & Chamberlain submitted a report to Mr. Bisset verifying the apparent defect in the walls and recommended that the walls be replaced as soon as possible.”
Marsilio added that Bismark Construction was retained and order to “fast track” the removal and replacement of the walls at Madison because “Bismark has a proven record of satisfactory service to the Town of Trumbull.”
According to the letter, Bismark Construction provided a detailed estimate of anticipated costs to the town of approximately $157,000.
“A review by our facilities personnel has determined it to be acceptable,” Marsillo wrote.
“As industry standard, Bismark requested an asbestos investigation for the affected area,” he added. “Asbestos was found in the inner walls, which is typical for a building built in 1960. It has been determined that the additional costs to demolish, contain and remove the contaminated areas would add an additional $43,000 to the project.”
Back and forth politics
The contract did not need to be awarded on a no-bid basis, Labella said, particularly to a donor to both Herbst’s own campaign and to the Republican Town Committee.
“The-no-bid contract is what makes this election-law violation so troubling,” Labella said. “It raises questions about favoritism, conflicts of interest and transparency. What’s more, all of this was done under the direction of Mr. Herbst, who campaigned in 2009 on a promise to pass an ordinance banning contractors doing business with the town from making political contributions.”
Kelly agreed with Labella.
“It’s a fact that Bismark Construction owner Jeffrey Raucci donated more than $5,000 to the Trumbull Republican Town Committee or Herbst for Trumbull between 2009 and 2011; it's a fact that state election law prohibits state contractors from contributing to local political town committees; and, it's a fact that after all the generous contributions, in 2013, Bismark received a $200,000 no-bid contract from the Herbst administration,” he said.
“It’s time for Tim Herbst and the TRTC to practice good-government values, and not just preach about them publicly,” Kelly added. “He promised Trumbull in 2009 that he would not accept contributions from town contractors who do business with the Town of Trumbull over $5,000 per year. He immediately turned his back on this promise after being elected, and now numerous town employees and contractors make contributions to Herbst and the Republican Town Committee.”
The first selectman responded to those comments by pointing out that both Kelly and Labella were elected members of the Board of Education at the time the wall deteriorated.
“They didn't do their job in holding relevant parties accountable but they had no problem taking Mr. Barbarotta's campaign contributions as DTC members,” he told The Times Monday. “They were afraid to hold him accountable because of his close, personal relationship with the governor and they are relying upon him to attend and assist with an upcoming fund-raising event on April 4.
“They are hypocrites of the highest order,” he added. “They compromised the safety of children by not holding relevant parties accountable and they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Herbst said that he would make the decision to submit the no-bid waiver request “again in a heartbeat.”
“Did I sign a bid waiver to correct a dangerous situation in a school to protect children and make sure school opened on time? You bet I did,” he said.
“Bismark Construction has a 30-year track record of doing exceptional work for the Town of Trumbull, under both Republican and Democratic administrations,” he added. “Vicious people the likes of Mr. Kelly and Mrs. Labella have no place in town government. I hope Bismark Construction and the Raucci family sue them for defamation of character.”