FBI Probes Role Of Waterbury Police Department In 2011 Municipal Election

Neil O’Leary, right, and Michael Gugliotti embraced on Election Day 2011 moments after O’Leary knew he’d ended Michael Jarjura’s 10-year reign as mayor of Waterbury. Gugliotti was the police chief at the time, and a close personal friend of O’Leary’s. The FBI is investigating whether the 200 Waterbury police officers that volunteered on Election Day for the O'Leary campaign were compensated, or used city assets. Both O'Leary and Gugliotti clearly state no city assets were used and the police and firemen who volunteered all took vacation days or used personal days.

                      Story and Photographs By John Murray

    For the past 18 months the FBI has been investigating a complaint about the large number of police involved in the 2011 municipal election in Waterbury. The core questions of the investigation are a) whether city employees were paid for working on Neil O’Leary’s victorious campaign, b) did the police use city vehicles or assets in the campaign, and c) were police compensated at a later date for volunteering on Election Day?

   So far lots of questions, and no answers.

   Additionally, the FBI is asking questions about the annual Westberg Golf Tournament that benefits dependents of active and retired police officers. The feds are probing along the same lines as the campaign – a) were uniformed police officers paid to work at the golf tournament, b) were city assets used to help raise the $750,000 now in the Westberg coffers?

   The investigation was triggered by a complaint, and the FBI, which moves at glacial speed, did nothing for more than a year. In February 2013 the FBI seized payroll records from Waterbury Police Headquarters, and two months ago several Waterbury police officers were called before a grand jury to testify about the campaign and the golf tournament.

   While upset at the possibility of having his reputation sullied by the investigation, Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary states neither he or his campaign did anything wrong.

   “Someone filed a complaint and the FBI is doing its job and investigating the complaint,” O’Leary said. “”I have spent most of my career in law enforcement and I believe in the system. I am not opposed to the FBI looking into the complaint, because we did nothing wrong.”

   Additionally, O’Leary is confident there was no misconduct in the operation of the Westberg golf tournament that he calls, “one of the best things we’ve ever done in the Waterbury Police Department.”

   So why the investigation? And who made the complaint? O’Leary told the Republican-American newspaper back in May that he believes the investigation was triggered by his opponent in the 2011 election - former five-term mayor, Michael Jarjura.

   Jarjura was interviewed on WATR radio and denied he made the complaint.

   “Mike Jarjura didn’t have to pick up the phone and call the FBI,” O’Leary said, “Mike made this a campaign issue by buying ads right before the election saying, “If the police and firemen knock on your door, you don’t have to get in a car with them and go to the polls.”

At the core of the FBI investigation is whether the Waterbury police used any city assets, or were paid, when they volunteered to work on election day for the O’Leary campaign.

   For perspective on the bruising 2011 election, and the role city employees play in every municipal election, a refresher might be helpful to understand why a federal investigation was launched, and what might be the eventual outcome. One key question is whether a federal probe was an inevitable outcome of one of the most memorable political campaigns in Waterbury history?

   For starters, the 2011 municipal election was more contentious and personal than any in recent memory. It was a three-way race that pitted a five-term incumbent (Michael Jarjura) against a popular former police chief (Neil O’Leary), and a tenacious community activist (Larry De Pillo). Remarkably Jarjura was unable to secure the mayoral nomination from his own party – the Democrats – and was forced to switch to the Republican Party to seek a record sixth term in office. Jarjura had been warding off competition from O’Leary and J. Paul Vance Jr. for two election cycles by promising the next term would be his last, and then he would support their candidacy for office. In 2007 both O’Leary and Vance backed off. In 2009 Vance refused to back off and lost a tight primary to Jarjura, but O’Leary stood down with the promise that Jarjura would back him in 2011.

Michael Jarjura served as mayor of Waterbury from 2001 to 2011.

    In December 2010, however, Jarjura broke his promise and said he was interested in running for a 6th term - a punch to O’Leary’s face. O’Leary was upset and met with Jarjura to hash things out. O’Leary said Jarjura told him would not seek re-election in 2011 if O’Leary were able to use his influence with Governor Dan Malloy to get the mayor a state job. Jarjura had a contentious relationship with Governor Malloy after breaking a promise to not primary Kevin Lembo for the State Comptroller position in 2010.

   “Malloy didn’t trust Mayor Jarjura and I was not going to ask the Governor to find a position for Mike,” O’Leary told the Observer in 2011. “Mike needed to live up to his promise to me, and he didn’t.”

    Jarjura had made the vow to support O’Leary’s 2011 campaign in a room filled with top Democrat leadership. When he tried to renege on his vow, the entire top echelon of the local Democrat Party turned their backs on him and supported Neil O’Leary. It was a stunning blow to a man who had led the city out of a financial crisis in 2001, and had been a loyal Democrat his entire life.

   “Why do I have to rush out of City Hall,” Jarjura asked the Observer in May 2011. “I’m young. I’m only 50 years old.”

    Jarjura said there are several versions of what happened in the closed-door meeting in 2009 with O’Leary and party leaders. “Everyone has their own version of what happened at that meeting,” Jarjura said. “And I had the right to change my mind.”

    Jarjura briefly considered a primary, but he is an astute politician and saw that his path was blocked in the Democrat Party. He believed he could still win in November when he could draw support from Independents and Republicans, so he made the switch to the GOP in May 2011.

   It was another shocking development in Waterbury politics, and suddenly a weakened GOP had a five-term incumbent at the top of its ticket.

   Perhaps Republican State Representative Tony D’Amelio summed up the GOP position when he said, “Who do the Democrats think they are trying to decide the 2011 race two years ago in a backroom deal? That offends me as a voter. Having Mike Jarjura on the top of our ticket is good for the Republican Party. I’m happy, this is a great thing for Waterbury.”

   And it forced a titanic collision between two political heavyweights who threw knockout punches at each other for months leading up to the election. O’Leary’s campaign questioned Jarjura’s friendship with Joey Davino, the former “Captain Blight” in the city who had been arrested for using city employees to fill his vending machines. The O’Leary campaign also suggested Mike Jarjura’s only interest in staying on as mayor was for his own gain as a developer, and they produced a brochure that depicted Jarjura lugging a bag of money and gold to his development headquarters in Middlebury.

   The Jarjura campaigned fired back at O’Leary with rumors he was about to be arrested by the FBI, that he had misappropriated drug asset forfeiture money while police chief, and dragged the former police chief’s personal life into the spotlight.

   O’Leary had quietly remarried his first wife the day he retired as police chief in Waterbury in June 2009, a move his political opponents called disingenuous and a money grab of pension and benefits from city taxpayers. Adding to the complexity was that O’Leary’s sister Noreen was the principal of the school his wife Kathy taught at, and Noreen (as were many of O’Leary’s friends and family) was unaware the two had remarried.

    Suddenly the O’Leary marriage was campaign fodder, and the gloves came off.

   O’Leary brought out revelations that Jarjura had been the landlord of a brothel involved in human trafficking, and the campaign veered into the gutter.

The 2011 municipal election was a slugfest between Neil O’Leary and Mayor Michael Jarjura, left.

   Once friends, there was nothing but animosity between O’Leary and Jarjura as they careened towards an Election Day showdown, and each man sought any advantage.

   O’Leary vowed to not take his $90,000 a year police pension while mayor, and fought hard to keep the Democrats united. J. Paul Vance Jr. threatened to enter the race, but holstered his political ambitions when he was appointed Connecticut State Claims Commissioner in August 2011. Karen Mulcahy threatened to be on the ballot in November 2011 as a petitioning candidate if her son Ryan were not an alderman candidate on the O’Leary ticket. According to O’Leary she called and directly told him, “I won’t get elected, but neither will you.”

   And three days later at the Democrat nominating convention Ryan Mulcahy was on the O’Leary ticket.

Former mayoral candidate Karen Mulcahy, seated, insisted her son Ryan (standing) be an aldermanic candidate on the O'Leary ticket, or she threatened to run for mayor herself.

   “People are nuts,” O’Leary told the Observer in July 2011. “Everyone is after a job or angling for something. If I knew it would be this insane I might have taken my pension and gone fishing.”

   While many voters believe that their one vote can make a difference – isn’t that the American ideal? – the reality is that candidates spend most of their time lining up support from organizations, unions and special interests that can deliver blocks of voters to the polls. It’s a numbers game, and whoever has the bigger number on Election Day wins.

   Enter the city employees and their more than 1000 votes.

   In 2011 the police chief in Waterbury was Michael Gugliotti, who at the time was a close friend of Neil O’Leary’s. Gugliotti followed O’Leary as the top cop in Waterbury and for two years worked directly for Mayor Jarjura. “I had a great relationship with Mike Jarjura,” Gugliotti said. “ He trusted me to manage the department and gave me great flexibility in doing my job.”

Former Waterbury Police Chief Michael Gugliotti is now a private investigator.

   When O’Leary challenged Jarjura, “it was a very uncomfortable situation for me,” Gugliotti told the Observer. “Neil was my mentor and friend and Mike was my boss who had been very good to me.”

    Gugliotti said he is not a political person and said he stayed away from the O’Leary strategy sessions until the very end of the campaign.

   “I was ultra-sensitive to the dangers of mixing policing with politics,” Gugliotti said, “and throughout the campaign I made it a point to remind all members of the police department to be mindful of not finding themselves in a compromising situation.”

   Gugliotti said, “I told all of them they were free to support who they wanted and to volunteer on any campaign, but to do so on their own time, and to be sure it didn’t interfere with the daily operations of the police department.”

   Three weeks before the election Gugliotti said he was called into Mayor Jarjura’s office to discuss the role of the police in the O’Leary campaign. At that time Gugliotti told Jarjura there were not that many police officers getting involved in the campaign. That changed quickly, though, when Jarjura questioned the integrity of the PD about the use of drug asset forfeiture money, the number of officers stepping out for O’Leary intensified.

   The Feds were asking questions about a high-speed boat the police had purchased to patrol (fish?) on a reservoir in Warren, and the use of drug asset forfeiture money to buy State’s Attorney John Connelly a car, and to repair a Tahoe SUV that O’Leary had crashed on Watertown Road.

   “When Mayor Jarjura publically questioned the use of that money the police turned on him,” Gugliotti said. “And in the final few weeks of the campaign more than 200 police officers stepped forward to volunteer on O’Leary’s campaign.”

   O’Leary said he had seen, “bodies come out on election day before by the fire department, but there was an unprecedented showing by the cops is 2011.”

   Independent Party candidate for mayor, Larry De Pillo, has run for office in Waterbury seven times. 

   “The city employees are always involved in local politics,” De Pillo said. “I certainly saw them out in 2011, but I’ve also seen them out on every Election Day. In fact in 2005 during Mike Jarjura’s successful write-in campaign I saw nearly every city employee at the polls wearing yellow.”

Independent Party candidate Larry De Pillo, left, stayed above the fray in the 2011 election and hoped Jarjura and O'Leary mortally wounded one another and he could slip down the middle and win the election.

   De Pillo said there was a lot of bad blood between Jarjura and O’Leary during the debates in October 2011, but he didn’t see much difference in the role of city employees during the campaign.

   “Not much different than any other campaign I was involved in,” De Pillo said.

   As the election drew nearer, Gugliotti had a second meeting with Jarjura, and he told the mayor that now 200 cops were throwing their support to the O’Leary campaign.

   “He was surprised,” Gugliotti said, “but I told him there would be no vehicles, no city insignias and no city assets used. He wasn’t happy at the sudden shift, but understood that city employees had a right to support whomever they wanted as mayor.”

    The Feds did come in and vet the drug asset forfeiture program, made no charges, and Gugliotti said the Waterbury PD was able to justify all the expenses.

   O’Leary said he believes the police support for his candidacy ran deeper than the drug asset forfeiture issue. “The cops had lost a contract fight in binding arbitration,” O’Leary said. “They were very angry at Jarjura for cutting the police force.”

   Also, O’Leary said it is impossible to underestimate the fraternity that exists in law enforcement.

Mayor O'Leary is pictured here greeting the current police chief in Waterbury, Vernon Riddick, who has publically acknowledged the FBI investigation and said the police are fully cooperating.

   “I knew a third of the cops by their first names,” O’Leary said. “I had been their boss just two years before.”

   A week before the election O’Leary said he met with a few hundred police and firemen at Domar’s Restaurant on Watertown Avenue to hear their concerns, and ask for their support.

   “The firemen felt betrayed by Mayor Jarjura in contract negotiations,” O’Leary said, “and they told me all they wanted was the truth.”

   O’Leary said he made no promises that night, and told the group of city employees that he would be fiscally conservative when it was time to negotiate contracts.

   “I was also very clear that if anyone wanted to volunteer on election day that they had to use personal or vacation time and they could not use any city assets,” O’Leary said. “We were very clear on that point.”

   Mike Gugliotti had a falling out with O’Leary in January 2013 and abruptly retired as police chief. They have come face to face a few times at various functions in Waterbury, but their friendship is shattered. Even with the rift between them, the two men are on the exact same page about the use of police officers on Election Day.

   “I repeatedly told the officers that they had to use a vacation day, a self-swap day, or a personal day if they were going to volunteer on Election Day,” Gugliotti said. “I was not going to tolerate anyone calling in sick and working on a campaign. No police officers worked on anyone’s campaign while on duty that day.”

      On Election Day Gugliotti said he got a call from Terry Calderone, the special counsel to the mayor saying police were using portable radios owned by the city, and some police volunteers were wearing shirts with the Waterbury PD insignia on it.

   “I immediately looked into it and the radios were not city property and several guys were wearing police union shirts, which display a badge on the chest, but it’s a separate organization,” Gugliotti said. “At the time I was comfortable with that, but I understand that might raise questions in hindsight.”

   Gugliotti and O’Leary said all vehicles and radios used by the O’Leary campaign to help deliver the vote to the polls were paid for by the O’Leary campaign, and no city assets were used.

   And despite 200 Waterbury police officers volunteering to get the vote out for their former boss, Gugliotti said the city was well protected that day.

   “We had more than enough officers working that day to insure the public safety in Waterbury,” Gugliottoi said. “That was my top priority.”

   Waterbury Fire Chief David Martin said, "There were a large number of firefighters working on Mayor O'Leary's campaign, but all were on their own time or appropriate leave. Mayor (then candidate) O'Leary was extremely specific to keep city business and campaign business separate. Given how adament he was, I'd be very surprised if anything inappropriate took place with any city employees."   

   The Feds have taken payroll documents out of the Polixce Department, but Martin said, "To date no one has contacted the Fire Department or to the best of my knowledge any of its members regarding this issue." 

    For generations city employees have been actively involved in municipal politics. O’Leary said in addition to the police and firemen there are 1500 school teachers in Waterbury (of which less than half live in the city), and blue collar and white-collar unions. City employees and their spouses make up more than a 1000 votes in an election, a substantial number in a bruising campaign many saw as being decided by a razor thin margin.

   “Anyone running for mayor who doesn’t curry favor with city employees is a liar,” O’Leary said. “That’s politics. I did seek their support, but I didn’t promise anything in return for that support.”

   And in the current model of electing a mayor every two years, O’Leary said any sitting mayor is always in a contract negotiation. “That’s why I believe it’s important to elect a mayor to four-year terms,” O’Leary said. ‘It avoids being a mayor being held hostage by some labor union every other year for their political support. The system needs to change.”

   The newly formed Charter Revision Commission is exploring the concept of changing the mayoral term to four years, which O’Leary said (if passed) would go into effect after he leaves office.

   One angle the Feds appear to have been looking into was whether O’Leary rewarded the police with a lavish contract during the next round of labor negotiations.

      “That did not happen,” O’Leary said. “I have been fiscally conservative in negotiating with the unions, and I’m not too popular with any them.”

   For proof, O’Leary said the police rejected the contract he negotiated with them, and he said in the 2013 municipal election there were far fewer police volunteering for his re-election campaign.

    “I have not favored one union over another,” O’Leary said. “The unions are not in love with me. I have not been overly generous, I’ve been fiscally conservative.”

   And if there aren’t enough twists to the 2011 municipal election in Waterbury, here’s another one to chew on. Three months before the election O’Leary said he was approached by State Representative David Aldarondo (D) who requested a $50,000 budget for Hispanic campaign operations in Waterbury’s South End. When O’Leary balked, Aldarondo helped convince the only Hispanic on the Democrat slate, Ruben Rodriguez, to withdraw from the race, leaving O’Leary with eight aldermanic candidates, instead of nine. Aldarondo then went to work for Jarjura to get the Hispanic vote to support the GOP.

The actions of State Representative David Aldarondo, left, during the 2011 election caused havoc for the O'Leary campaign. O'Leary vowed to topple Aldarondo in 2012 and was instrumental in supporting the candidacy of Victor Cuevas, who ousted Aldarondo.  

   On Election Day there were rumors about an excessive uniformed police presence at South End voting precincts, presumably to suppress the Hispanic vote, but Michael Gugliotti said that is nonsense.

   “We had police checking in on every polling place,” Gugliotti said, “and after we received complaints about thugs working for the Aldarando camp, we sent a few extra cruisers into the South End for public safety reasons.”

   So what’s it all mean? Is this investigation simply a by-product of a nasty and vindictive 2011 campaign? Is there any merit to the investigation, or are the Feds simply doing their due diligence and clearing the complaint from their files? Time will tell.

O’Leary, right, was anxious as the polls closed on election night in November 2011, and now two and a half years later, he is anxious again about the results of that campaign as the Feds question the use of city employees. O’Leary clearly states that his campaign did nothing wrong, but until the probe is completed, anxiety remains.

   And despite the certainty they followed the proper procedures, both Gugliotti and O’Leary have expressed concern about being possible targets of an FBI probe. “Sure I’m concerned,” Gugliotti said. “Anytime there is a federal probe into the period I was the police chief brings me concern, but we were very careful to do things the right way.”

   A political operative in the O’Leary campaign said everything was double and triple checked. “We’re not amateurs in Waterbury,” they said. “This was a well planned campaign strategy. Let the feds investigate, there is nothing there.”

   O’Leary was more succinct about the FBI probe. “I don’t love it,” he said, “but I believe in the system. Let them do their job.”