This article, from October 2004, was selected by longtime editor Charles Monagan as one of his favorites from his time at the helm of Connecticut Magazine: "What better way to capture the illicit flavor of Joe Ganim’s first wild ride as Bridgeport’s mayor than to run a you-are-there account by former Ganim aide (and seasoned journalist) Lennie Grimaldi?""
This article is being posted to the web in September 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
An insider's view of how greed and corruption in City Hall ruined lives, dictated public policy and betrayed the good people of Bridgeport.
By Leonard Grimaldi
Editor's Note: After spending 10 months in a federal prison, Leonard Grimaldi last month returned home to Bridgeport, where he had been a principal in one of Connecticut's most notorious scandals. What follows is his account of a 10-year period in which he and others—most notably former Mayor Joseph P. Ganim—rode the political gravy train from the top of the world straight into a hell of FBI wiretaps and criminal convictions.
Donald Trump placed his right hand on the shoulder of a model—tall, blonde, striking, must have been 22—and with his left hand steered Joe Ganim by the shoulder, easing the two together. “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine,” Trump cooed above the noise at a party for ABC soap stars at his Plaza Hotel, inching her closer to the mayor of Bridgeport. “You see this man?” Trump asked. “He’s the most powerful man in Connecticut.”
“Oh, really—how powerful are you?” the model shimmered. “And do you dance?”
I’d heard about the magical deals the tycoon had cut, but this was one quick potential hook-up on a hot August night in 1994; a little dance, a little wine, those legendary Plaza suites a short elevator ride away. Ganim, a married man of many tastes and interests, took notice of the witnesses to the scene.
“No, I don’t dance, but see this man over here?” he asked, grabbing my arm. “He’s really the most powerful man in Connecticut—and he dances.”
Not on this night. On this night, Donald Trump, who earlier that summer had announced plans to build a massive theme park along Bridgeport’s impressive waterfront, was courting Joe Ganim.
The mayor of Bridgeport had a tricky balancing act. Connecticut’s General Assembly was debating a bill to expand legalized gambling in the state beyond the popular Foxwoods Casino operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Nation. The driving force behind the new legislation was Trump’s chief gaming rival, Steve Wynn, he of the volcanic eruptions, white tigers and rain forests of the Mirage Resorts in Las Vegas. Wynn had already spent millions in Connecticut pursuing his gaming agenda with lobbyists, lawyers, advertising and community rallies. He’d schmoozed and boozed, wined and dined legislators, offering junkets to Las Vegas and spreading the word about what he and his new casino could do for Connecticut’s tired economy. In August 1994, Ganim was not only mayor of the most likely city to host a casino, he was also the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and thus an influential player in the casino sweepstakes.
All this casino talk had Bridgeport buzzing. Connecticut was just hours from Atlantic City, where Trump owned three casinos. If Wynn got a casino here, it would unquestionably impact Trump’s interests in New Jersey; it could reverse the flow of gamblers from the lucrative New York market and entice slot enthusiasts from the Fairfield County gold coast. From Trump’s perspective, not only was Atlantic City not big enough for him and Wynn, neither was the rest of the tristate area. In fact, if Trump could figure a way to do it, he’d drive Wynn from the Nevada desert across California and into the Pacific. Ganim was rightly suspicious of Trump’s overture to the city. Did he really want to build a theme park, or did he just want to tie up property so Wynn couldn’t get at it?
Joe Ganim knew a good invitation when he got one, and dinner with the Donald certainly sounded tasty. When Ganim asked me to tag along to Manhattan that day in August, I was game, too. The night began in the Oak Room, Trump’s restaurant in the Plaza Hotel, the symbol of luxury that he bought during the real estate boom of the 1980s for a cool $400 million in borrowed money. The Plaza Hotel’s rich history and French Renaissance architecture were awe-inspiring. Overlooking Central Park South at 59th Street and 5th Avenue, it was a haven for the well- heeled and high-heeled, including the likes of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, who was the first to sign the guest register when the landmark opened for business in 1907. Even in the Oak Room, where wealth, fame and power dominate, diners paused momentarily to catch a good look at Trump, as much rock star as developer. We all shook hands, and then Trump said, “Hey, we don’t have to eat here. There are a few parties we could go to. We’ll talk business and pick along the way. C’mon, ABC is throwing a party for their soap stars around the corner—let’s go.”
In step, we followed Trump, cutting a swath through the lavish corridors of his hotel to a Plaza party room where a bunch of pretty people, soap stars and supermodels drove carrot sticks into dips, popped bubbly, chatted about their daytime dramas and danced to the music of a live pop band.
“This is the place to be. It’s incredible, isn’t it?” Trump crowed. We looked at him approvingly. The room was loaded with party-hired supermodels. Trump surveyed the scene. “There was a time . . . ,” he began, and then his voice trailed off. Ivana was long gone by this time and his new wife, Marla Maples, the Georgia peach and a former model herself, was the woman in his life now, along with baby Tiffany. The supermods also took notice of Trump. They gravitated to that blue suit like lint. But this night was about Joe Ganim. Our host shifted gears.
“Okay, there’s a party for the Wilhelmina modeling girls at a club down the street,” Trump said. “Let’s go there.” As his limo driver motored down 5th Avenue, Trump waxed expansively about some of his properties—the Plaza, the Empire State Building, his massive West Side Highway project, the this and the that. As we spilled out of the limo, a camera crew from Germany at the entrance to the club spotted Trump and threw a spotlight on him. He never missed a beat.
“They love me in Germany, they love me in New York and they love me in Bridgeport!” he shouted.
The club was dark, mobbed, beered-up and loud. On a small stage, some lovely Wilhelmina models were doing their thing. They had long legs and wore very short skirts. A thumping crowd hooted and cheered them on, a purplish haze floated around the ceiling lights. Even in the bedlam, everyone recognized Trump. He was like a movie star crashing a nightclub. He said to the mayor through the buzz, “You’ll never have this kind of fun with Wynn!”
Joe Ganim, who owned a superior nose for b.s., knew he was being played by a master, but he didn’t care. Ganim loves fun. On the drive home, he said, “This is the kind of thing you could tell your friends, ‘Hey, I went bar crawling with Donald Trump the other night.’”
For the next five years, this would be my life with Joe Ganim—big- city nights, heart-pounding clubs, saucy saloons, Kobe steak and fabulous bottles of Bordeaux. In a way, it all grew out of that night on the town in Manhattan.
In 1994, people knew Ganim had knighted me his political “guru,” the friend and consultant who had positioned him for a gubernatorial run just one term into his mayoralty. That November, four months after the night in New York, at the suggestion of Trump’s Connecticut attorney Leonard Blum, Trump decided he wanted to hire me—Ganim’s closest political adviser—as a public relations consultant to represent his interests.
Doing PR for Trump was an alluring proposition. Initially, I wasn’t so much interested in what it could generate in dollars and cents as in having a high-profile client like the Donald. Sure, he’s an ego- maniacal, shameless self-promoter, but so what? So are politicians, I thought, and I represented them all the time. This would be good for the resume, and if the night in August was any indication, an association with Trump could mean mucho Manhattan jaunts.
Since most of the business and political establishment in the region was backing Wynn’s proposal, I knew I had value. My relationship with Joe Ganim from 1991 to 1994 had been extremely close. We were close in age, loved politics, and I provided him something he needed for his political future: the ability to frame a message to the electorate. Campaign work seduced me. For me, it’s like a sporting competition—my candidate against the others. Ganim respected my work and I enjoyed the friendship. Without question, people eventually started coming to me because they wanted something from Ganim, be it access or a job for a nephew.
Then a simple dinner on Dec. 1, 1994 changed my life and Joe Ganim’s. The mayor, Paul Pinto—a 23-year-old Ganim friend and fund-raiser—and I were dining at Ralph and Rich’s, a restaurant in downtown Bridgeport. I was excited about the potential of representing Trump and had a meeting scheduled with him in a few days to discuss the terms of our agreement.
Ganim looked at me. “How much are you going to ask Trump to pay you?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, “maybe three or four thousand a month.”
Ganim giggled. “Lennie, are you nuts? Donald Trump isn’t paying you because of your public relations skills. He’s paying you because of your relationship with me. Take advantage of it. Ask him for eight or ten thousand per month. It won’t be a deal killer.” On Dec. 5, I met Trump at his headquarters on 5th Avenue. For all the media coverage I had read about him being a germ freak, he extended his hand as I entered his office. “I’m glad you’re coming on board,” he said, standing tall in his customary blue threads. He invited me to sit down.
“Lennie, I want you to be my eyes and ears in Connecticut,” he started. “Let me know any information you pick up about gaming in the state. Let me know what the mayor is thinking, your friends in the media. I know Ganim likes to have fun in Manhattan. He loves the bullshit, doesn’t he? Here’s where I stand on the gaming bill: I’d rather kill it than see it happen, but if a casino happens, I want it.” Then Trump got down to financial business. “What are your needs? This is really important to me.”
I knew I was far from Trump’s league when it came to the art of negotiation, but this was fun so I went for it. I had nothing to lose. “Most of the players in Bridgeport are with Wynn," I said. “It sounds like you will need a lot of my time and I'm willing to put in the time. I would like an up-front payment of $10,000, followed by a monthly retainer of $8,000.
“You know, a lot of PR guys charge me less because of what my relationship brings them,” Trump said sternly. “What are you, a fucking baseball player—you want a $10,000 signing bonus?”
“I figure since most everyone is with Wynn, I will be expending a lot of political capital working for you.”
“Well, don’t bullshit a bullshitter," Trump snapped, as a way of putting me in my place. “Okay, here's what we’ll do. I'll pay you $4,000 for the first month to see how you work out and then pay the $8,000.”
“Norma!" he shouted to Norma Foerderer, his long-time administrative assistant, who swiftly entered his office. “I want you to cut a check right now for $10,000 and make it out to Lennie Grimaldi.”
A few minutes later, Norma presented the check to Trump, who signed it on the spot and handed it to me.
“I’m counting on you to do a good job,” Trump said, walking me to the door. “Don’t let me down."
An apprentice was born. Over the next three-and-a-half years, consultant payments I received from Trump totaled more than $300,000. With clients like him, who needed slot machines? The first thing I did after my meeting with Trump was to visit Ganim at Bridgeport City Hall.
“So,” Ganim asked, “how did it go?"
Bragging does not suit me well, but what the heck—I was sharing good news with a friend, right? So I showed him the check for 10 grand.
“You got more money!" Ganim beamed. “Len, Len," he drew out my name slowly. “I hooked you up. I told you he’d pay you more because of me."
“Well, thanks for the suggestion,” l said.
But from that day forward, my friendship with Joe Ganim would never be the same. Our relationship had moved irretrievably from friendship to finances. In the weeks and months and years to follow, be would remind me relentlessly how much money Trump was paying me because of him. And he made it clear that if I wanted the gravy train to continue with Trump and other potential clients, it was payback time.
Sure, I knew I was making money as a result of my relationship with Ganim, but I also knew if Trump thought I was a useless moron, he would have laughed me out of his office. I appreciated my friendship with Ganim and wasn't about to be an ingrate.
We started living the good life. Pinto, who was also learning what a friendship with an influential politician could mean financially, began in earnest to pander to Ganim's extravagances. The three of us took limousines to the fanciest Manhattan restaurants where we wined and pigged out, crawled the clubs and pubs and collapsed into our beds at 3 a.m. Le Cirque, Lutece, Smith and Wollensky, Restaurant 222. Ganim ordered three- pound lobsters, beefy porterhouse steaks, lamb chops, pork chops, pasta dishes, sometimes all in one night, often washed down by $500 bottles of Chateau Lafite. It was amazing how much the mayor could eat in one night. Of course, those of us who ate with him enjoyed ourselves too.
But the real laughs came when the check arrived. Ganim had this running pantomime: Leaning his body to the right, his hand would dig deep into his pocket, the corner of a one- or five-dollar bill coming up for air, as if he was to pay. We all cracked up as he shoved the Abe Lincoln back into his pocket. Ganim never paid, nor did I expect him to. Picking up the tab was the price of doing business. But Ganim was the kind of guy who would cancel the next meeting with your client if you didn't pay. Buying expensive dinners and living it up in Manhattan are things lobbyists and consultants do for clients and politicians. The question is, though, when do you cross the line—legally, morally, or both? For Ganim and me, it happened in the spring of 1995.
Ganim had become increasingly jealous and persistently hungry for a piece of the money I was making from clients who were doing business with the city. At first, he'd say things like, "You’re making all this money because of me and my balls are hanging out there from my mortgage payments." Then one day in the mayor’s office he said, "I'm working at my father’s law office in the afternoon to make some extra money. My mortgage payments are killing me. You're in aposition to help."
“How can I help?"
"Can you pay the law firm for legal work? Since I'm working there, it's a way to get me some extra money."
“Sure, Joe, if this helps you."
I agreed to pay the law firm roughly $1500 per month—over time about $10,000. I kept sending the money because I knew what the cost of any perceived ingratitude could be. On the occasion of his daughter's christening, in October 1995, I presented Ganim a check for $1,000. I’ve always been generous with money, but I had never given anyone a $1,000 christening check in my life. It was just a way to get him some more money.
A few weeks later, I was in his law office and once again he complained about his mortgage payments. The familiar refrain followed: “You’re in a position to help.”
“Joe, I just gave you $1,000 [for the christening] and I’m paying the law firm. What's going on?” I asked.
“Lennie, you’re making all this money because of me and you also cannot make it because of me,” he snapped.
“I understand that, but this is getting to be some money now.”
The payments I’d already made to him were part helping a friend, part showing some gratitude and part wanting to keep those client paychecks coming to me. But for the first time I felt squeezed. I had a decision to make. Say no and piss him off, or pay him and keep the gravy train of clients running. I pulled out my checkbook.
“Is $3,000 okay?”
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
I was uncomfortable. I looked at him.
“Joe, what happens if someone picks this apart?”
“Just make a notation in the memo section of the check,” he said.
It was around the time of his birthday, so he meant I could make that the reason for the payment. For a while I kidded myself into believing this would satisfy Ganim’s desire for money. But it only got worse—and far more corrupt.
Re-enter Paul Pinto, the precocious, dark and brooding son of a popular and powerful Bridgeport politician, Richard Pinto, who in 1987 had been fatally struck by a car while attempting to cross a street in Fairfield as 15- year-old Paul looked on in horror. Paul Pinto is no mumbling, bumbling goombah. He’s a graduate of Fairfield University with a cunning, quick mind, a clear understanding of land use and construction management and the radar to satisfy a mayor’s insatiable appetite for the good life.
Pinto emerged as a key player in Ganim’s small inner circle, cultivating business and personal relationships with Alfred Lenoci Sr. and son Al Jr., owners of United Properties, a wheeling-dealing commercial real estate firm in Fairfield; Joseph Kasper, owner of long- established Bridgeport engineering firm, the Kasper Group; and attorney Charles Willinger, a slick Bridgeport-area land-use lawyer. The three firms, with Pinto at the core of the action, constituted the mayor’s formidable fund-raising base.
Increasingly Ganim ceded power to Pinto, who in exchange plied the mayor with whatever he wanted when he wanted it: suits, shoes, shirts, ties, wine, cash. To Pinto, grease was grease, and he had a subzero conscience level when making the mayor happy (to make himself happy), Pinto served as the construction manager of a house Ganim built in the exclusive Black Rock section of Bridgeport. Need a builder? No problem. Want a landscaper? No sweat. How about first-rate appliances? You got it, mayor. Pinto did everything for Ganim. As felonious relationships go, he served the mayor like a concierge at a Four Seasons hotel.
I realized the extent of Pinto’s growing influence with Ganim in 1996. My client, the Professional Services Group (PSG)—an industry leader in wastewater treatment—was selected by Ganim to operate and manage the city’s sewage-treatment plant. Pinto, the Lenocis and Willinger, all of whom represented a PSG competitor in the process, threatened to use their influence on the City Council to torpedo the approval process if they were not cut in. “Pay us,” Pinto warned, or they will blow up my client’s deal. I freaked out, complaining to Ganim about stickups and collusion.
“Tell those guys to go punt,” I told Ganim, not knowing he was in on the scam.
“Stop being a Boy Scout and go work out a deal,” Ganim ordered. In the end, my client had to cough up $70,000 extra per year for Pinto and the Lenocis. In addition, Willinger, who represented PSG’s competitor in the selection process, was hired by Ganim to handle city contract negotiations, with the legal fees paid by PSG.
“You and the Lenocis are making more money [as the result of] one threatening phone call than I’ve made working six months on the project for PSG,” I yelled in frustration at Pinto. Okay, he said, we’ll share some of the money with you. I was allowed to keep 12 grand. Bad move.
One day in early 1997, Ganim decided he wanted to become “business partners” with his two closest advisers, Pinto and me. At Pinto’s prodding, he demanded a fee-sharing arrangement jn which I was required to split 50 percent of my fees from my company, Harbor Communications, with Pinto, who was in turn supposed to do his best to bring me public-relations business. In exchange for promising to select our clients for city work—such as the architect and builder of a new minor-league baseball stadium—Ganim wanted us to satisfy his appetite for the finer things, such as custom-made suits and shirts, and investment-quality wine. Basically, just about anything he desired.
“Why do I have to pay Pinto?” I protested in private to Ganim. “He’s not going to do anything for the money.”
“Because it helps me,” Ganim responded. I was stupid enough to go along with it.
Ganim had effectively recruited Pinto, who had no official government role, to shake down developers, contractors and consultants seeking business with the city. And the mayor kept him on a long leash. Normally a spatial thinker, Ganim had failed to factor in Pinto’s Achilles’ heel: He lacked the finesse for negotiation that was the hallmark of Ganim’s mayoralty. Smitten with the power bestowed on him by Ganim and utterly unpolished when sitting across the negotiating table from a refined corporate executive, Pinto displayed a bluntness that infuriated people. Getting in the face of a contractor who understands practical politics may be okay, but such a style doesn’t go down so well with an Ivy Leaguer.
When I complained to Ganim that allowing Pinto to use his name to squeeze executives would come back to bite him, he responded, “Sometimes you have to grab what you can grab when you can grab it.”
Instead of heeding my storm warnings, Ganim and Pinto came back for more. In the spring of 1999, at the Coffee Island cafe in Fairfield, Ganim and Pinto insisted on a new fee-sharing relationship in which roughly two-thirds of my fees through Harbor Communications would go to Pinto, who would hold and hide the mayor’s share in a dedicated account. And by the way, the mayor wanted my cash payments to him stepped up. And by the way, the mayor wanted his wife paid $1,500 in cash each month as a research and proofreading consultant for Harbor Communications. In return, he promised to ensure Professional Services Group a long-term extension to operate the city’s wastewater treatment plants, and to pick other of my clients for city work.
Before Ganim inked the long-term extension for PSG, he required a review of my client contract. On a weeknight in April, during dinner with Ganim and Pinto at the Bridge Cafe in Westport, I presented Ganim the section of the Harbor Communications consulting contract that itemized the fees from PSG; the first payment, $495,000, was due within 10 days after the signing of a 20- year extension. Ganim coolly nodded his approval of the loot. For me, the dinner was far from a celebratory carving up of the pie. Ganim had his hands on a dubious contract in which he would be the corrupt beneficiary of roughly $200,000. Out of sheer nervousness I tested his resolve, reminding him of the contract language expressly prohibiting the sharing of fees with any public official. Handing the contract back to me, he said, “Don’t worry, they won’t be breaking your balls. They’ll be breaking mine.”
The “they” of course was the FBI, already on the scent of a quid-pro-quo atmosphere in Bridgeport City Hall that included applications for wiretaps on the phone lines of Pinto and United Properties. The fever in the phone lines would catch up with me a few months later. Dozens of agents operating from a boiler room in a Fairfield office building would untangle thousands of intercepted phone conversations in the FBI’s Operation Hardball, named in honor of The Ballpark at Harbor Yard.
My relationship with Ganim was no longer about cases of Bordeaux and Hugo Boss suits. He wanted a piece of everything, including cash payments. He felt entitled. One night that summer, as we sat in his city vehicle parked in front of a Fairfield restaurant, I handed him $3,500 in an envelope with a promise of more. “Here’s your speech,” I said out of pure paranoia. “It’s 75 percent done.” Ganim looked in the envelope and said, “Nice speech.”
Bundles of cash and corrupt deeds were the things I had chronicled as a journalist, and now I had morphed into what I had covered—a selfish, greedy political phony. That summer of 1999, with my brain experiencing vast overload, the queasiness in my stomach turned rancid. No one single event convinced me I had stepped deep into quicksand, but all the following thoughts zoomed through my head: Pinto coordinated every shady deal involving Ganim; developers felt shut out of work that was wired for Pinto and Grimaldi clients; others felt squeezed by Pinto’s actions on behalf of Ganim; I had paid Pinto, at Ganim’s direction, roughly $1 million from Harbor Communications, a hunk of which Pinto was holding for the mayor; I felt resentful that upwards of two-thirds of fees coming into Harbor Communications, all of which could be considered legitimate money, was going out the door to Pinto and Ganim.
But nothing compared to the tightness in my gut as I contemplated an FBI investigation. I learned through clients that the feds were asking questions about the people who wielded influence with the mayor. Think I had buyer’s remorse? Boy, did I. I understood the capabilities of the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office to quilt a massive case against a corrupt mayor and his boys. Bagging a high-profile pol, especially a rising star such as Ganim, charges straight to the top of a federal investigator’s resume. I felt in my loins that the FBI had Pinto lined up in its investigative scope and all they had to do was follow the money trail to me. Why is Grimaldi’s company paying Pinto, who has zero public-relations experience, all this money?
Then in September 1999, former state Treasurer Paul Silvester pled guilty to racketeering charges involving a kickback scheme in his office. My resting heart rate of 65 beats per minute tripled. I examined my options. One, go to the FBI and throw myself on the mercy of the system. I couldn’t do it, knowing such a course would be the equivalent of slicing my own throat and causing the disruption of dozens of lives. Two, I could consult a lawyer, but that would probably lead back to option one. Three, walk away from Ganim and Pinto and hope for the best. I decided on the last, knowing that financial retribution would certainly follow.
Two key meetings convinced me to cease my relationship with them. On a September afternoon in 1999, Ganim and I were seated at the kitchen table in his newly constructed colonial, outfitted by the cash payments with which Pinto had greased contractors. Ganim seemed restless, the kind of mood I had often seen him in when finances clogged his mind.
“Make sure you get those payments to Jennifer,” he said, referring to his wife.
“Joe, I try to hand her the money but sometimes she won’t take it. I can’t force Jennifer to take the money. She’ll only accept the cash for the work she put into it. It’s not my fault your wife has integrity.”
“Try harder,” he stressed.
The conversation hit a nerve. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Joe, you have a beautiful wife, beautiful children, a beautiful house on the water,” I said. “We give you cash, we give you clothes, we give you everything you could want. You’re the highest-paid elected official in the state, making more money than the governor. You let me know what it’s going to take to satisfy you because you’re making me nuts. When is enough enough?”
“I’m frustrated because I want to get my hands on that money,” he said, referring to the loot Pinto was holding for him.
“Joe, this is the way you wanted it. You wanted the money held for you.”
I left, neither of us in a good mood for different reasons. A few days later, on Sept. 24, 1999, in the grill room of the Mill River Country Club in Stratford, Pinto relayed a lecture from the mayor that no doubt grew out of my session with Ganim at his home.
“Joe is really mad at you,” Pinto said. “He’s pissed that you’re holding back payments to him and Jennifer. This is a real problem.”
“I’m sick of this relationship,” I steamed. “I’m sick of the pressure I get from you and Joe. This is the stuff grand juries are made of. It’s just a matter of time before this whole thing blows up. I’m finished.”
I pushed away from the table and headed for the door.
“You’re not walking away from us!” Pinto yelled.
“Watch me!” I barked, walking out.
Pinto immediately telephoned Ganim to complain I was being a jerk, a call recorded by the FBI. In the weeks ahead, a scorned mayor showed how a powerful elected official could wield economic power. He shut down my access to City Hall, withheld city payments to clients doing business with the city and spread the word, generally in political circles, that I was a pariah.
Ganim and I spoke infrequently in the year 2000 and most of what the FBI heard on my phone was the frustration of an emasculated consultant howling about a mayor mistreating his clients. Political insiders were aware of a rift between Ganim and me, but they did not know the reason. The FBI certainly knew a divorce was in the making.
On the morning of Dec. 19, 2000, a series of events occurred that would forever change the lives of dozens of Ganim associates and their families. With a helicopter whirring over downtown Bridgeport, the FBI’s Operation Hardball went public as 100 subpoenacarrying agents raided offices, confiscated documents and rattled the stomachs and minds of political players linked to Ganim, including Pinto, the Lenocis and Willinger.
At 3 p.m. that day, while I was showering before going to the wake of a high-school sweetheart, there was a pounding on the door of my barn house in Redding that felt like a tremor unearthing the foundation. With Jeter, my copper-coated vizsla, baying at the door, I threw a towel around me, slipped down the spiral staircase and approached the door. Outside—thick, suited, badges poised—stood FBI agents Emil Parelli and Gary Jensen. My guts clogged my throat. I asked for a moment as I hauled Jeter out the back door into his fenced-in area. I knew the agents weren’t there to be my friends, but I also knew, that when dealing with FBI agents, politeness is mandatory. I felt like saying, “What took you so long?” Instead, I invited them to sit on the couch while I toweled my dripping body. Inside, I was mush, total mush.
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“We have some questions to ask you about the city of Bridgeport,” Parelli said.
“I would like to talk to you,” I responded, “but I would like to do so in the presence of an attorney.”
No problem, they said, The agents left me a subpoena, saving me the indignity of a house search, that directed Harbor Communications to turn over all documentation and bank statements relating to Paul Pinto and a variety of my clients. I attended the wake in a nearly catatonic state of fear. Nothing is as stressful as knowing you’re in the crosshairs of a federal investigation.
After a night without sleep, I began my search for a lawyer. My first call went to James Pickerstein, the former chief assistant U.S. attorney for Connecticut, whom I knew from my newspaper-reporting days. Before I could get 10 words out, he stopped me. He was already representing someone.
“Lennie, I can’t talk to you about this case, every lawyer in this end of the state already has someone. If you need someone—call this guy.” Pickerstein, who had been hired by Pinto, provided the name of Jamie Cowdery whom I also knew from his days as a former assistant U.S. attorney, and who was now practicing criminal defense law in Hartford.
Cowdery, a long, lanky, genial Floridian with a shock of orange hair and a Kelsey Grammer look about him, saw me the next morning.
“So tell me, what’s going on?” he asked, having already picked up a few tidbits about what the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office were probing. Haltingly and uneasily, I explained the evolution of my relationship with Ganim and Pinto, but not thoroughly—bits, pieces, deflections for hours for fear of the truth. I had five years’ worth of sewage packed in my head, and I didn’t want to unleash the full extent of the stink.
Cowdery and I met several times during the Christmas holiday. Christmas was horror-full and sorrowful. Every time I looked into the eyes of my parents and my girlfriend Maureen, I felt my liberty being stripped away by the federal government.
Cowdery, an experienced investigator, nosed through the Harbor Communications checkbook like a bloodhound. “What in the world were you doing paying Pinto all this money? And what did he do for it?” he asked pragmatically.
I was resistant and noncommittal to his questions, and he was growing impatient. He wanted the truth, not pieces of it.
“C’mon, Lennie,” Cowdery seethed. “Somebody was paying Joe Ganim and I want to know who was paying him.”
“Why do I have to be the one to throw him under the bus?” I protested.
Cowdery banged his hand on the conference room table and shouted, “Because he’s already under the bus! Paul Pinto is going to flip because the assholes are always the first ones through the government’s door and that guy is an asshole. Pinto will roll on Ganim and will blame you for everything,"
Sometimes the truth can be shamefully painful. I sunk my chin into my chest and wept. Cowdery took pity on me.
“Look, Lennie,” he said, “I will help you through this, but you have to tell me the truth. I have to know what’s going on. I think these guys were shaking you down, but I also think you played ball, too. Sitting in that jury box will be a nurse, a real estate agent and a secretary. To people like that, this is an awful lot of money you paid Paul Pinto.”
I told Cowdery everything I knew: Ganim’s demands for money, the corrupt agreements, the good, the bad and the ugly. And Cowdery was right about Pinto. Ganim’s personal concierge signed a cooperation agreement with the government the day after the FBI raid on his house. In fairness to Pinto, he did what was right for his family,as did all the other cooperators charged in Operation Hardball.
Cowdery informed me that the lead prosecutor in the case, Ron Apter, wanted me to cooperate, but that the cooperation would come at a huge personal and financial price. To trump any argument by a savvy criminal defense attorney that I had been given a sweetheart deal to testify against Ganim, I would be charged with serious felony counts, racketeering conspiracy and tax fraud. If I cooperated truthfully, the government would urge my sentencing judge to grant me leniency based on my substantial assistance and to depart from the brutal federal sentencing guidelines.
“If you go to trial and lose, it’s a lot of time,” Cowdery told me. “If you plead guilty and cooperate, I can’t guarantee you anything but I think you may do a year or two. It’s a total leap of faith.”
There was more. Apter wanted my charge to sting financially. “They want you to forfeit your house,” Cowdery said. The RICO statute—Racketeer Influence Corrupt Organization—created to attack traditional organized-crime families but now also used for white-collar cases, brings broad forfeiture authority in cases where the government argues offenders used ill-gotten gain to finance personal property such as a mortgage, I was the listed owner of my home in Redding, and my lawyer warned me against switching the asset into someone else’s name because it could be considered a fraudulent conveyance. I was numb.
“A jury isn’t going to acquit Joe Ganim because the government left me my house,” I grumbled.
“I agree,” Cowdery said, “but strategically that’s what the government wants. It’s not a good deal, but it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. Stay focused on the cooperation, not the charges.”
I sold my house to satisfy the government’s $175,000 forfeiture requirement, and moved in with my parents. Between the government, legal fees and loss of work due to my public embarrassment, I was cleaned out financially. The prosecutors and agents working the case were surprised by how little money I had until they examined the amount of Harbor Communications cash that went to Pinto, and hence, Ganim. My “leap of faith,” as Cowdery called it—cooperating with the government and hoping for the best—began in January 2001.
You want to know what pressure is? Pressure is being interrogated by six stone-faced federal agents. During the first session, FBI agents, IRS agents and federal prosecutors asked no question to which they didn’t know the answer. This allowed them to determine my level of truthfulness. Government cooperation is rigorous, demanding and wearying. The agents and prosecutors are neither friend nor foe. They pose questions and want answers. Over several sessions, with Cowdery present, I built a level of trust that satisfied them and relieved any concern on my part that I was going to be left hanging. I discussed the case with them in person or by phone more than 100 times over a 24-month period, listening to hundreds of court- authorized wiretaps to help explain the sequence of events and spent months in preparation for Joe Ganim’s trial.
Prosecutors Apter and Michael Sklaire decided to make me their lead-off cooperating witness. “You’ve got the toughest job,” my lawyer told me. “You’re going first.” How comforting, I thought. The government rarely leads with its biggest weapon—in this case, Pinto—for fear the witness could cave under the forceful weight of a defense attorney’s cross-examination.
In January 2003, just over two years after the agents had come to my door, I spent five days on the stand in federal court in New Haven. During the first two-and-a-half days, under the direct examination of Sklaire, I established the foundation of the government’s case, explaining to the jury and U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton the progression of my relationship with Ganim.
Ganim defense lawyer Richard Meehan tried to frame me as a charlatan who took advantage of a friendship with a mayor. By the time I was done, Ganim was heavily damaged, and the witnesses that followed, including Pinto, who persevered through eight days of testimony, corroborated one another’s testimony. Apter and Sklaire pieced together the perfect case while Ganim’s seasoned attorneys, Meehan and Bruce Maffeo, didn’t have much to work with. In desperation, Ganim took the stand. Normally polished and persuasive when talking into a microphone, the mayor imploded under Apter’s cross-examination. Dubbed “The Raptor” by Connecticut Post Managing Editor Michael J. Daly for his lethal cross-examination, Apter trapped Ganim in inconsistencies, half-truths and lies, filleting him like a Long Island Sound bluefish. The things Ganim admitted to taking he claimed were merely gifts from friends, not corrupt acts. But each time, Apter produced a cancelled check, a receipt or a document corroborating the timing of the benefits with an official mayoral act.
The jury concluded that Ganim had corruptly used his public position to enrich himself. They convicted him on 16 counts, including racketeering, extortion, bribery and tax fraud. Sadly, Joe Ganim, a talented politician, son of a proud family, who had done good things for Bridgeport—but more for himself—didn’t have the strength to do what was right for his wife and family. He rejected a plea offer on the table that would have limited his exposure to 30 months in prison. Instead, he rolled the dice and received a nine-year sentence from Judge Arterton, who had to follow the mandatory- minimum terms of the federal sentencing guidelines. Pinto, whose consuming criminal conduct was measured against extraordinary cooperation, received 24 months.
When my turn came to take my medicine on July 16, 2003, I had already resigned myself to prison time, but just how much I did not know for sure. It was Judge Arterton’s turn, and hers was the voice that counted.
“You seemed, out of the whole crew, the only one with a soul, although you were a very big player,” she said from the bench. She pointed out that she placed great weight on my decision to “walk away” from Ganim and Pinto. She read a letter submitted on my behalf from my friend Leonard Blum, the attorney I worked with closely during our representation of Donald Trump. ‘“Lennie Grimaldi is a good guy who got caught up with bad guys,”’ she read. “And that probably is about right.” But, she added, “you must be punished.” Judge Arterton sentenced me to 14 months, 10 of which I served at the federal prison camp at Otisville, in the foothills of the Catskills, in southeastern New York State.
When I was a kid I always wanted to go away to a camp, I just never thought it would be Otisville. I’m a former “racketeer” who is blessed with a loving family, friends and fiancee. They say all saints have a past and all sinners a future. I won’t be on a fanatical reform crusade in my quest for redemption, but I’m certainly embracing this dreadful experience as an opportunity to deter others from making the mistakes I made. Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure can purchase an awful lot of misery.