James C. Duckett Jr., whose ambitious plan to redevelop Hartford's Dillon Stadium collapsed amid allegations of fraud, proclaimed his innocence Monday after returning to Connecticut following his surrender to the FBI in Las Vegas.
Duckett and business partner Mitchell Anderson were arrested on federal charges Thursday. They are accused of billing the city for hundreds of thousands of dollars in work that was never performed, and then transferring much of the money to themselves or to companies they control. The pair also allegedly collected money from the city on behalf of subcontractors, but failed to pass the money on to those companies.
"INNOCENT," Duckett wrote in a text message to The Courant Monday, followed by an emoji of a winking face.
Duckett was in Las Vegas Thursday when federal agents alerted him that he had been indicted. He turned himself in and spent a night in custody before being released without bail Friday afternoon. He returned to Connecticut over the weekend. Anderson, arrested at his Avon home Thursday, pleaded not guilty in federal court in New Haven Thursday and was released on a $100,000 non-surety bond.
The criminal investigation was sparked by a series of stories in The Courant, beginning with an October article revealing that Duckett has a felony embezzlement conviction and a string of unpaid legal judgments. Since then, Duckett frequently has been critical of The Courant's coverage and declined Monday to address the charges beyond his declaration of innocence.
"You guys are driven by the City of Hartford. You're going to put in your article what you and the city wants published to cover their asses," Duckett wrote. "There's always an angle. You never state the facts that I tell you. Please respect my family and I and leave us alone. The truth will come out at the end."
A federal grand jury began investigating the stadium deal in October. The indictment accuses Duckett, Anderson "and others known and unknown to the Grand Jury" of conspiring to defraud Hartford and the stadium's contractors "by means of materially false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promises."
Anderson's company, Premier Sports Management Group, had a contract with Hartford to oversee a $12 million redevelopment of Dillon Stadium. But in March 2015, he joined forces with Duckett and the pair made a pitch to city officials for a far more ambitious plan. If the city covered the $2 million cost of clearing the stadium site, Duckett and Anderson said they would privately finance a professional-level stadium costing as much as $50 million.
City leaders endorsed the plan and began negotiating a long-term lease for the stadium site. But the project began to fall apart last October after The Courant reported that Duckett has a felony embezzlement conviction and a string a unpaid legal judgments. The paper later reported that Premier Sports had submitted bills to the city totaling $1 million for roof-design work that the design company said was never done. The city paid Premier $700,000 in two checks, but halted payment of a third check after The Courant's initial report.
The approved architect on the project had already designed a roof for the stadium. But Duckett told The Courant in October that the design was inadequate for the grand stadium he envisioned, so he reached out to the Florida company, Big Span Structures.
Rick Laxton, president of Big Span Structures, said he submitted invoices to Duckett showing what the roof would cost if Duckett decided to hire his firm. Laxton was shocked last October when told that invoices totaling $700,000 had been submitted to the city and paid to Premier Sports. "Oh wow. That's crazy," he said.
Overall, the city paid Premier Sports Management Group $1.8 million, including $1.6 million intended to cover subcontractor invoices. But more than $1 million of that money allegedly was never paid to those contractors. Instead, the indictment charges, Duckett and Anderson diverted part of the money by making a series of five- and six-figure transfers to themselves and their companies.
Duckett's return to Connecticut could be complicated by a separate legal dispute: For the second time in two years, the owner of the 8,600-square-foot home Duckett rents in Somers has gone to court, seeking to evict Duckett for non-payment of rent. Ricky Lee Ramsey — who is listed in corporation papers as a co-owner of Duckett's company, Black Diamond Consulting — filed a suit earlier this month, alleging that Duckett fell behind on rent and ignored a demand to vacate the house. Duckett countered in a court filing that the house has numerous code violations, including a lack of heat and hot water, a non-working refrigerator and bad plumbing throughout the home.