3:58 PM EDT, September 22, 2012
A Hartford-based federal grand jury is gathering information on possible criminal activity at the region's anti-poverty agency, the Community Renewal Team, deepening the legal complications faced by the embattled, multimillion-dollar non-profit organization.
The CRT is "under suspicion of criminal fraud and conspiracy," and a "grand jury sitting in Hartford is currently investigating the matter," Dove A. E. Burns, a lawyer representing CRT, said in a motion filed Aug. 21 in Hartford Superior Court in response to a civil lawsuit.
The lawyer's mention of the grand jury provides an unusual window into the status of an inquiry that's being conducted in secrecy by several federal and state agencies that provide tens of million of dollars annually to the CRT.
In February, a subpoena from the office of the U.S. attorney sought CRT records, which a lawyer said could involve either civil or criminal matters. During a two-day raid on the agency's Hartford headquarters in April federal agents seized thousands of paper and electronic files.
In the April episode, a federal official gave a terse confirmation that the records seizure was part of a criminal inquiry – but the August court filing is the first explicit mention of secret proceedings by a grand jury in Hartford that are still active and could, conceivably, deliver one or more criminal indictments.
Burns made her disclosure in an effort to postpone the need to reveal something else: The agency is asking a judge to delay its obligation to hand internal information over to an ex-administrator, Patricia Donovan, who is suing in state court for damages. She claims she was defamed and illegally forced out of her job at CRT early this year.
Donovan, through her Hartford lawyer, Richard E. Hayber, is trying to embark on the formal process of "discovery" – the legal procedure where a plaintiff or defendant in a lawsuit seeks to compel the other side to provide evidence or testimony that will help support its claims. In this case, Donovan is seeking information and documents on matters including agency personnel policies and practices.
The CRT is seeking a lengthy delay in its obligation to provide such information, and Burns, in her motion for a protective order, says that the pending grand jury probe puts the agency and its officers in a bind: If they come across with the information that Donovan wants, they may jeopardize their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"[T]he defendants insist on preserving their right against self-incrimination by not discussing these facts," wrote Burns. "This includes their right to assert all defenses fully, including the right to point the finger at Ms. Donovan for her own wrongdoing. Such finger pointing, however, may well have the side effect of exposing the Defendants to criminal liability."
"The ongoing federal investigation leaves the Defendants and CRT's principals in the untenable position of choosing between their rights against self-incrimination and to due process" in the civil lawsuit, Burns wrote. Burns claimed that a delay would not hurt Donovan because "whether the matter is tried today, tomorrow, or in two years, if the Plaintiff meets her burden she will be made whole."
Hayber said in an interview that he will fight Burns' delay effort, which has yet to come to a hearing in court.
"They make a well-written and flowery argument about the general principle" of giving up the right against self-incrimination by complying with requests to provide information, but do not give specific reasons why each piece of information would put them in jeopardy, Hayber said. That's not how issues should be decided in court, he said, adding that justifications must be given for each claim that a disclosure would conflict with a Fifth Amendment right.
Donovan says that last January, agency CEO Lena Rodriguez forced her to resign from her $100,000-plus job as chief operating officer after accusing her of improper behavior. Donovan denied any impropriety and said her ouster came because she furnished documents to, and cooperated with, state auditors who were looking into a "whistleblower" complaint about improper agency operations.
The focus of that complaint – by one or more present or former CRT employees – was a state-funded program called "Home Solutions," which until its conclusion in 2010 provided repairs to the homes and septic systems of people who met low-income standards.
One allegation is that federal funds earmarked specifically for other programs were improperly diverted to the Home Solutions program. This allegedly happened when Home Solutions started faltering and its grant funds were not being distributed, and CRT administrators were afraid they wouldn't receive more state funds to continue it.
Burns, in her court motion, said that the criminal probe of Home solutions could turn against Donovan because "her responsibilities included oversight over several programs including … Home Solutions. This program, and her management thereof, have become part of a multi-agency federal investigation with criminal and civil implications."
But Hayber and a former Home Solutions administrator both denied that Donovan had a management role in that operation. "My information is that she was not responsible for Home solutions and had nothing to do with it," Hayber said, adding that he also understood that "Lena Rodriguez pulled some of Trish's staff to support Home Solutions."
"Trish is not being investigated, has done nothing wrong, and is not afraid of anything," Hayber said.
A former CRT employee who worked in the Home Solutions program, M. Steven Gosselin, said in a separate interview that he recalled Rodriguez presiding over four or five weekly staff meetings about how to revive the Home Solutions program. Gosselin said Donovan "had nothing to do with Home Solutions."
A spokesman for the office of U.S. Attorney David B. Fein, the top federal prosecutor in Connecticut, would neither confirm or deny that there's a grand jury sitting at the U.S. District Court building on Main Street in Hartford.
The subpoena issued by Fein's office last February was served after a Feb. 12 Government Watch column. The column reported that Paul Puzzo, CEO of the Community Renewal Team until 2005, had been receiving at least $85,000 a year as the agency's vice president -- but he rarely appeared at the office and spent significant time at a waterfront condominium unit that he and his wife own in Florida.
Among CRT's major programs are the Head Start pre-school education program, adult day care and Meals on Wheels.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at email@example.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant