Nora Dannehy Brought Down The Crooks

Fifteen years ago, corrupt officials at the highest levels of state government were perverting their public trust for personal gain. That dark time, however, coincided with a golden age of federal corruption in Connecticut. Felons and the just did battle; rectitude prevailed. Thank Nora Dannehy.

The former acting and assistant U.S. attorney announced Tuesday she will leave public service for a global position with United Technologies Corp. in Hartford. Dannehy has served as deputy state attorney general since early 2011. Her achievements serve as a tonic to this age of doubt and skepticism.

Dannehy was a member of the team of federal agents and prosecutors who pursued a wide conspiracy to use state pension funds under State Treasurer Paul Silvester for personal enrichment. Silvester, a close associate of Gov. John G. Rowland and Speaker of the House Thomas Ritter, was appointed to fill the vacant treasurer's position.


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Madness reigned in the treasurer's office under Silvester. Bribes and undue influence were the order of the day, with billions of dollars of public funds used to satisfy private desires. Silvester made the fatal decision to make his subordinate and mistress Lisa Thiesfield campaign manager of his 1998 bid for a full term as treasurer. What a hash she made of it. The volatile, crude incumbent lost.

As the tale of bribes for investment contracts and campaign contributions unraveled, Silvester and his unsavory circle began to fall as Dannehy and her colleagues squeezed the corrupt. Plenty of others who were part of the permanent government that trades in deals and favors trembled.

Silvester and eight others, including Thiesfield and Silvester's brother and brother-in-law, did time in the hoosegow. Though we did not know it at the time, it was just the overture for an age of shame in Connecticut politics. Several years later, Dannehy and company had reason to direct their attention to Rowland and his grimy instincts.

That time of profound unease was accompanied by the sort of colorful anecdotes of crime that we thought were the provenance of Florida, Louisiana and New Jersey. Gold doubloons buried in the backyard, cabinets and a hot tub at a lakeside cottage; and affairs, construction contracts and limousine rides to and from Boston were some of the colorful highlights that salted the grim roll call of corrupt practices.

Federal law enforcement authorities often express some disdain of the press. Their feelings for us dwell most of the time at a level of suspicion. Nevertheless, they know how to work us when the squeeze is on. Figuring out what the feds know or beating them to the next chapter in a saga becomes exciting work. It was very tough to get the jump on Nora Dannehy.

My favorite Dannehy moments came on a rainy afternoon in the spring of 2004 at the federal courthouse in Hartford. Famous Connecticut antiques dealer Wayne Pratt had been nabbed as a stooge for Rowland's unceasing efforts to use his power to fill his empty pockets. A press hive waited outside the courtroom for the proceedings to begin. A scrum of prosecutors advanced down the hall toward the courtroom, looking their most purposeful.

As she swept into the courtroom, Dannehy turned her head slightly to the right and gave us a royal nod that caused me to think she could condescend to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. Minutes later, she was reciting facts in the courtroom, to which Pratt would then admit, that left no doubt that John Rowland was trapped, a goner, destined for historic humiliation. They had uncovered his tawdry MO.

On Dec. 23, 2004, six months after resigning as governor, Rowland walked into a federal courtroom in New Haven and pleaded guilty to corrupt practices in the probe in which Dannehy served as the lead prosecutor.

Dannehy's rectitude probably kept her from appointments as the U.S. attorney in Connecticut and a seat on the federal bench. Winning those positions requires some chums in politics, and Dannehy has eschewed that route to influence. She relies on merit and a crowded belt of scalps.

Now our hero is off to the wild world of international business, where she'll see more unsavory practices. Please keep a diary, Nora. Your stories are always worth knowing.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

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