During the ten years I’ve published the Observer in greater Waterbury I’ve met thousands of people. I’ve interviewed the powerful, the wicked and the oppressed. I’m friendly with many influential people in the city, but only two broke through my journalistic barrier to become my friend, one of them is community activist Andy Michaud.
I’ve roasted marshmallows with his family at a roaring campfire and shared a Christmas Eve meal in his house gorging myself on baked stuff shrimp. I coached one of his sons in youth soccer and photographed another son last year for his high school year book. I explain this up-front so the reader can make up their own mind about the following column, which is about Andy, and his ongoing struggle with the power structure of Waterbury.
Andy Michaud is well-known in Waterbury and was recently smeared by a series of articles published early September in the Republican-American newspaper. Andy has been embroiled in a war of words with Mayor Mike Jarjura for the past 20 months and the jousting match recently culminated when two FBI agents made an intimidating house call to the Michaud home in the Overlook neighborhood of Waterbury.
The situation has gotten way out of hand and while I have no power to stop the action, I do have some insights that might help the reader better comprehend the unfolding drama. First some background……
Andy has a beautiful wife, Carol, and four great kids. They live in a spacious house on Euclid Avenue with a sprawling porch, and massive front steps that serve as the family hangout during nice weather. They have an above ground swimming pool in the backyard (which nobody ever uses) and they have a little dog that barks too much.
An American flag hangs from the front of their house and their tiny front yard is usually filled with bicycles, or some of their daughter’s doll gear. In many regards the Michauds are an old school American family; Carol and Andy are still married (a difficult task in this day and age) and they have four children (which is double the national average).
The two oldest boys are in college, and the two younger ones attend private parochial school in Waterbury. The Michauds, like many couples, struggle to pay their bills. Money is tight, but there is always food on the table and plenty of laughter in the house. They are like millions of other families across the country, but the Michauds have an unusual twist to their story, one which culminated in the recent FBI visit.
This is their story.
Andy grew up in the construction business and learned to hang sheet rock from his father. His mother was also involved in construction and taught Andy how to build condominium units and leverage the asset to build, or buy, more homes.
He caught on quickly and by the mid 1980s he owned nearly 40 properties around Waterbury. Before he reached his thirtieth birthday Andy Michaud was a millionaire.
But like thousands of other developers around the country Andy took the real estate collapse of the 1990s like an anvil to the head. His mini-empire collapsed like a house of cards and he started losing his properties one by one. He eventually filed for bankruptcy protection and has been in and out of court for the past decade trying to salvage something from the ruins.
Andy Michaud was not alone in facing financial collapse in the Waterbury real estate market. Many others went belly up, and some like Bob Matthews, simply walked away from the horrid situation, and with financial help from the state of Connecticut, began anew in New Haven. Andy doesn’t have Bob Matthew’s powerful connections and had to try and bail himself out through bankruptcy.
Michaud has been harpooned in the Republican-American for abusing the bankruptcy proceedings (he’s filed numerous times) and for being a deadbeat taxpayer (he owes nearly $250,000). The newspaper’s beef with Michaud, however, has nothing to do with finances – it’s about politics and the words that spew out of Andy’s mouth.
In the past ten years Andy has morphed from developer on the edge, to the most outspoken community activist in Waterbury. While most political pundits get weak kneed at the prospect of confronting the power structure in Waterbury, Michaud licks his chops.
Using his public access show on cable television, and his monthly column in the Observer, he has relentlessly attacked the integrity and ethics of the Republican-American newspaper and it’s publisher William J. Pape II. Other Michaud targets have been former republican mayoral candidate Steve Somma, former mayor Phil Giordano, former editorial writer at the Republican-American Marc Ryan (now head of CT Office of Policy and Management, OPM) and Governor John Rowland.
Most of the individuals ignored his fiery rhetoric, but during the past two years he has tangled with the powerful law firm of Drubner, Hartley, O’Connor and Mengacci, the Naugatuck Valley Development Corporation, current Waterbury Mayor Mike Jarjura and Corporation Counsel Terry Calderone.
Some have flinched, some have publicly fired back, and some have threatened lawsuits. But unlike the previous individuals he criticized, the recent crop have all responded to Michaud, which is a big mistake. Andy enjoys the recognition of public debate and believes its a compliment when someone in power takes the time to fire back at him. But fighting Andy is like handing a starving gorilla a truck-full of bananas – he’s going to try and eat you.
But sometimes he goes too far.
In September 2001, Michaud wrote a column in the Observer that speared NVDC, Terry Calderone and the Drubner law firm. Andy made some excellent points in his column, but he went over the top when he basically called everybody a crook, a conclusion not backed up by fact. As publisher and editor of the Observer it is my responsibility to find and eliminate libelous statements before publication, which is a monthly task with Andy’s columns.
I made a mistake two years ago and Andy’s column went out unedited. Within days I was threatened with three lawsuits. I met with the aggrieved parties to discuss the situation and a correction was published in the next Observer. As far as I was concerned the matter was resolved.
But from my conversations with the three parties it was clear that no one was interested in destroying the Observer – it was Andy Michaud they wanted to shut up. Attorney Gary O’Connor was convinced that Michaud had repeatedly libeled him on the air, and in print, and told me he was determined to sue Michaud. He knew Andy was broke, but O’Connor said he could win a judgment against Michaud’s future earnings.
During my visit to his law firm, O’Connor’s legal partners advised against a lawsuit stating it would turn Michaud into a martyr, and draw even more attention and sympathy to him. And despite his statements to me, O’Connor never sued. Ironically, Andy’s financial woes provided protection.
He had nothing to lose.
During this time period I was approached by Corporation Counsel Terry Calderone while I was stretching my legs one Saturday afternoon on the Waterbury Green. Apparently she had also just worked out at the YMCA, and was dressed in sweat pants. She said she was very unhappy with Andy’s column (which had said Corporation Counsel was under federal investigation) and told me she wouldn’t sit by and let him ruin her name in the community.
She was obviously upset, and I told her that her name wasn’t mentioned in the column. I told her that the FBI had announced during Giordano’s arrest that everyone in City Hall was being investigated. All city contracts were also being investigated and that included the work of Corporation Counsel since it acts as the legal arm of the city.
Calderone told me that she had friends in the FBI and they had assured her that she was not under investigation. That may well be so, I said, but until the FBI makes a public statement to the contrary, the Observer would continue to believe everyone was still under investigation.
After the correction was published (which did not include any apology to corporation council) all legal threats disappeared, and Andy continued being Andy. Actually, he never stopped. After Mike Jarjura was sworn is as mayor in December 2001 Andy began to openly criticize some of the mayor’s policies. The mayor, used to the relative anonymous routine of Hartford politics, was ill-prepared for Michaud’s criticism.
During my first interview with Mike Jarjura in his office in the Spring of 2002 he talked more about Andy Michaud than he did about anything else. Clearly, Andy had crawled under the mayor’s skin.
In September 2002, Michaud sharply and publically disagreed with several Jarjura policy decisions, and the mayor fired back. Mike said that Andy was bankrupt, and didn’t have the credentials to be a policy critic. During a television interview the mayor said that since Andy didn’t pay taxes it wasn’t fair to city taxpayers that his children attended public schools.
Ouch. Not only had the mayor made the attack personal, he was wrong. All of the Michaud children were being educated at private schools. Jarjura’s miscue allowed Andy to have a field day with the mayor in television rebuttals, and in his Observer column.
The two men, once very friendly towards each other, have continued to exchange barbs for nearly two years. Where Giordano dismissed Michaud as a kook, Jarjura has engaged him in debate. It has proven to be disastrous for both men.
Political insiders have advised the mayor to ignore Michaud, but Mike Jarjura is intent on countering to defend his family’s good name. The mayor is a very likable guy and I have known his father and brothers for ten years. He works extremely hard for the city of Waterbury and many people believe he is doing an excellent job as mayor.
Andy Michaud doesn’t happen to be one of them.
Vigorous debate on ideas and policy is a long standing American tradition, but the Michaud-Jarjura debacle should not be considered in that vein. It’s too personal.
Last October after I heard that the mayor had refered to Michaud as the devil on earth, I contacted Andy to see if he would consider calling a truce. He agreed it was getting out of hand and said he was willing to sit down with the mayor and agree to disagree. I called the mayor and asked if he would consider sitting down with Michaud. I told him all the name calling was destructive to the city of Waterbury and it had to stop.
Mike agreed, but said he wouldn’t sit down with Andy until after election day, which was nearly three weeks away. The meeting never took place.
And now, a year later, the dance has risen to a bizarre climax. After years of having nothing to lose, Andy Michaud’s bankruptcy case came under city jurisdiction and his file came across Terry Calderone’s desk down at Corporation Counsel.
With more twists and turns than can be described in this column, Andy attempted to strike a deal with the city. He offered to pay the city $82,000 to keep four condo units remaining from his shattered empire.
The city refused.
Andy believes the refusal was political revenge. He was finally in a vulnerabe position with his head poking up from the fox hole, and he was whacked. Shocked and angry, Andy hunted down Mayor Jarjura to personally plead his case.
The mayor gave him a little more time to try and negotiate a deal with the city, but in the end the city rebuffed his offer of $82,000 and is going after his property.
Michaud believes the Mayor and Terry Calderone have attempted to punish him for “telling the truth’’, and the crisis has left him with only one recourse – to fight back.
He filed a Freedom of Information request in City Hall to find out when Terry Calderone started working in Waterbury, and how much money she was paid in her last pay stub. If she wanted to make it personal, Michaud said, then it was going to get personal. He intends to file FOI requests on the contracts she signed under the Giordano administration, and is intent on crashing the harsh public spotlight onto a position that until now was relatively low profile. Michaud attacked Calderone on public access television and told his viewers that he was being punished for exposing the truth.
Other talk show hosts on cable access television defended Calderone, and said Michaud was just looking for someone to blame for his own financial disaster.
I don’t personally know Terry Calderone, but I’ve heard some really decent things about her from people I know and respect. She appears to be an honest, hard-working lawyer doing what she believes is best for Waterbury. Although I only met her once, for about five minutes, I do know this about her – she is ill prepared to spar with Andy Michaud in public debate.
He’ll eat her for lunch. It’s not that Andy’s smarter than her, because he probably isn’t. It’s that Andy, unlike most people on the planet, thrives on confrontation. He is a master at verbal jousting and is unfazed, almost energized, when an opponent engages and acknowledges him.
The way to hurt Andy Michaud is to ignore him. Dismiss his opinions, and in many ways you dismiss the man. It’s really that simple, but Mayor Jarjura and Terry Calderone haven’t figured that out yet. They are both hyper-sensitive to Andy’s bombastic rhetoric and they can’t turn away. Andy is just doing the same thing he has been doing for 10 years, the difference is in how people are reacting to him.
So instead of debating him they have attempted to discredit him using the “kill the messenger” approach. Mayor Jarjura continues to use the word bankruptcy in any reference to Michaud, and someone inside city hall is feeding the Republican-American sensitive information about Andy’s bankruptcy hearing.
Smelling blood in the water, the Republican-American unleashed another reporter (hatchet man) to cover Andy’s on-going financial woes. For several days in a row the reporter, Steve Gambini, filed reports about Michaud’s bankruptcy hearing and repeatedly referenced Andy’s newspaper, The Sports Page Magazine. The big hook of the story was whether the city had to pay Michaud the $2000 it owed his business, while he still owed the city $250,000.
Within hours of the story being published several advertisers pulled their ads from The Sports Page. The repetitious pounding of bankruptcy and tax delinquent were now being linked to Michaud’s newspaper, and the damage was swift. The articles may have been the kiss of death to a publication that highlighted postive aspects in the local sports scene.
Some Republican-American insiders have claimed that the daily newspaper has become more ethically and politically balanced since executive editor Jonathan Kellogg took over the reigns several years ago, well they can kiss that argument good-bye. As long as the most powerful voice in Waterbury continues to unleash its fury at political opponents it will continue to be an editorial joke.
The mission of any reasonable newspaper is to objectively inform its readers of issues and events important to the local community. Unfortunately, part of the Republican-American’s mission is to destroy the opposition.
The articles about Andy Michaud had one intent and that is to discredit and embarrass him in the community. The absurdity hit the ceiling on Friday, September 12th, when the daily newspaper published an article on the front page of its local section saying “FBI visits man who owes city large tax bill”.
The reason for the FBI visit? Terry Calderone felt physically threatened by Andy Michaud. Mayor Jarjura was quoted as saying “It has to do with actions and comments and a series of events that were troubling. As mayor I take these matters very seriously with regard to workplace violence.”
What had Andy done? Nothing more than crank up the verbal heat on Terry Calderone. Michaud had gotten inside her head, done a few laps around the track, and turned her emotional world upside down. The only crime Andy Michaud committed is that he won’t shut up.
Has he physically threatened Calderone? Michaud said the allegation is laughable. “She can’t take the heat,” he said, and he dismissed the FBI visit as a lamo “Gestapo tactic”.
So why was the FBI involved? Hmmmm. Remember Terry Calderone told me two years ago that she had friends at the FBI? Did she call in a favor to try and intimidate Andy Michaud to get him off her back? She’s the only one who knows the answer to that question.
I called Andy on his cell phone the day the story was in the paper and I strongly advised him to take a deep breath and collect his thoughts before responding. What was next? An arrest for some trumped up charge of harassment. The Republican-American would gleefully send out the whole newsroom to cover Andy being led away in handcuffs. The picture of our disgraced free spirit would be published on the front page of the next day’s edition. What would that do to his reputation?
“They are trying to paint me out to be a violent person,” Michaud said. “They are trying to destroy my reputation in the community and I’ve got to fight back.”
The Michaud’s are considering filing a lawsuit against Mayor Jarjura and Terry Calderone for violating their civil rights and for abusing the power of elective office.
“It’s outrageous that the FBI is knocking on my door and harassing me,” Michaud said.
“And the quotes by the mayor in the newspaper are lies. He is trying to silence me, but he is messing with the wrong guy. I’m fighting for my life here and I’m not letting this crap stand.”
As this destructive game of point – counter point escalates out of control the real losers are the 106,000 residents in Waterbury. The mayor has greater responsibilty to stop the feud because as the chief elected official in Waterbury he owes it to the citizens of the city to act in a more dignified manner. He is a role model. Andy has no such burden. And they both need to attend an anger management class and stop trying to outdo the other guy.
As for Terry Calderone, she should take a meditation class to calm her jangled nerves and get the FBI’s telephone number off her speed dial. She should also stop wasting taxpayer dollars by positioning Waterbury police officers outside her office. Andy Michaud may be coming down to the Corporation Counsel’s office, but it’s only to bury you in a blizzard of FOI requests.
Andy Michaud isn’t violent, he just has a mouth that won’t stop moving. He deeply believes in vigorous free speech and holding politicians feet to the fire. 95% of what he says is accurate and can be documented. The other 5% is where is gets himself in trouble. Sometimes watching his television show is like watching a high speed car race, the real excitement is waiting for the crash.
And when he does crash he scrambles quickly into a new car to resume the high adrenaline rush of circling around the Waterbury elite and lobbing bombs of truth in their direction. Some hit the mark and some fall short, but know this about the man, the harder you try to silence Andy Michaud, the louder he’s going to get.