Few disagree about Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim’s political skills. He is one of the state’s most gifted politicians, one of the most resilient, and, perhaps, one of the most tragic.
It was all on display in Hartford, in a vaulted courtroom in an empty, old courthouse on Washington Street. Five skeptical members of a bar examining committee were watching Ganim try to win back the right to practice law, something he has been unable to accomplish since losing his law license after his conviction and imprisonment on corruption charges two decades ago.
An hour into the hearing, Ganim, who already engineered an astonishing reelection to the mayor’s office after his release from prison, was asked, how could he have put himself at the center of one of the state’s most sensational political scandals?
“I don’t know how I can explain it,” he said “because … I can’t.”
His voice broke and he wiped at something in his eye. The person he has become, he said, still cannot understand whatever it was that drove the old Joe Ganim into a corrupt conspiracy that cost him his family and untracked a political career headed for the governor’s office and who knows what afterward.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” he said, “to recognize that I was a willing participant, more than a passive player, in that type of activity. … I developed a level of arrogance. I don’t know if it was greed, but it was arrogance.”
Ganim has apologized before, but nothing approached the hours of self-analysis he offered up to a group of unsympathetic strangers who wanted to know how he could have gone so wrong and why it took him 15 years to admit it.
Detractors suspect the apologies are phony — belated, insincere and contrived for political gain. Some, including at least one member of the bar committee, suspect his latest attempt to get his law license back is just such a calculation: an attempt to “sanitize” his past in preparation for a run for higher office after he leaves Bridgeport City Hall.
Sincere or not, Ganim is still a treat to watch. He is tanned and fit. His sharp gray suit looked, as always, as if he had just picked it up at the cleaners. He is articulate. He locks eyes with whomever he speaks to. He is nimble. He showed that he is determined and prepared.
Like when committee member Richard Brown warned Ganim “We have to dig down deeply, to decide if this is just another con,” before beginning a rapid-fire series of word association questions.
“Sincerity” Brown snapped.
“The unvarnished, open ability to tell someone exactly what you mean from the heart,” Ganim said, without hesitation. “And that you are aware of and that you care about the impact on the recipient.”
“Honesty,” Brown said
“Honesty is doing what is right all the time,” Ganim shot back. “Even when people aren’t looking, even about the small things.”
“Trustworthiness,” Brown said.
“Trustworthiness means that if you make a decision, at the other end of the thing, it’s locked down,” Ganim said.
Ganim has been apologizing and explaining since 2015. As things turned out, he would have been better off if he began earlier, and he conceded as much to the committee.
“I was still in victim mode,” Ganim said when asked why it took him a decade and a half after his indictment to admit he was wrong. “It was me versus … whoever. I was still in denial. Self centered and in denial.”
Now 62, he was elected mayor of the state’s biggest city at age 31 and served five consecutive terms on the way to prison. He pulled the city from the brink of bankruptcy, hired cops and cut crime, picked up the garbage, tore down a notorious housing project, made ambitious redevelopment plans, built a ballpark, lighted the streets and planted flowers. He won over voters on the city’s long-overlooked east side, who felt as if they had finally been discovered and remain the bedrock of his support.
His administration collapsed on Halloween in 2001. He was charged with bribery, extortion, fraud and tax offenses in a 21-count racketeering indictment that put him at the center of a city hall conspiracy that collected hundreds of thousands of dollars by extorting any contractor of substance who tried to do business with the city.
Ganim insisted he was innocent. Prosecutors spent days presenting evidence to the contrary, of a young mayor obsessed with luxury, taking part of his payoffs in tailored shirts, custom suits, expensive shoes, jewelry, crates of investment-quality wine, home improvements and cash. Ganim insisted on testifying and lied that he was the victim of corrupt political associates.
After the trial, he claimed he was wrongly convicted and appealed. He was sentenced to a stiff, nine-year sentence, in part because the judge concluded he tried to obstruct justice by testifying falsely. In prison, he claimed, falsely, to have had an alcohol problem in order to win admission to a substance abuse program that cut a year off his sentence. His classmates in the program elected him their president and he gave a speech at the graduation ceremony.
Ganim continued to assert his innocence after his release from prison in 2010, and it cost him his first attempt to restore his law license. In 2012, a panel of judges denied the application because, not only had he failed to show remorse for his crimes, he persisted in denying involvement.
Denial of the license, Ganim said last week, started a process of self evaluation that led him to accept that his conduct had been “reprehensible” and he had deluded himself into believing he was a victim.
“I think the answer to that is ‘Yes,.’ ” he told the bar committee. “It’s not a light switch that you flip on and say, ‘I get this.’ It is more of an evolving process.”
He said he believes he was infused with “super optimism,” a condition he learned about in a prison self-help program and which, in simple terms, describes a person persuaded he can talk his way out of anything.
“Isn’t that a characteristic of all politicians?” Ganim was asked.
“No,” he replied. “Of criminals.”
He said he began making apologies in private. By 2015 he said he decided to go public, a decision driven at least in part by political consideration.
“Despite my having many faults, I still thought I had a human skill set that could be productive,” he said last week.
Ganim had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, with family help, to satisfy court-ordered fines and restitution. With his family, he created a scholarship in memory of his youngest sister, Mary, who had supported him daily at his trial and whose funeral he could not attend after she died while he was in prison. He decided to offer the scholarship through a group of Black churches on the city’s east side.
“I was invited to speak there on Emancipation Day,” he said last week. “I told them I would like to say something in addition to the scholarships.”
Two months later, Ganim apologized again on a popular radio show. He dropped all his appeals and started planning a campaign for his old office.
“It was at that point I think I got to the time when I thought, ‘You know what? Whatever happens, step up,’ ” he told the bar committee. “So the premise in my mind was, I thought I had a skill set that I could apply. Once I decided to do that, it was a campaign premised on a second chance. I asked them to put their trust in me to be their mayor.”
The voters of Bridgeport returned him to office in 2015 and he has been reelected twice. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018
Suzanne Sutton, Ganim’s lawyer, spent hours leading him through the sordid details of the city hall shakedown racket during his first turn in office; he took responsibility and apologized for it all.
On a deal to privatize Bridgeport water and sewer services, Ganim said he left it in the hands of his two bagmen, knowing he would get part of the money extorted from competing contractors.
“My approach was, wrongfully, I didn’t want to make anyone unhappy. I said, ‘You guys work something out.’ And they worked something out,” Ganim said.
When now former President Donald Trump came to town with plans to build a casino in Bridgeport, he put one of the Ganim bagmen on his payroll as a purported publicist. Ganim said he told the bagman his value to Trump was his access to the mayor’s office.
Ganim said he never took anything personally from Trump, but feels responsible for what was a shady consulting agreement.
“It’s a breach of the public trust the moment you cross over that line,” Ganim said. “I crossed that line.”
Ganim said he lied, or perhaps exaggerated, to get into the prison substance abuse program because, “I had a nine-year sentence and I was trying to get time off, if I could get it.’’ He said he was “naïve, arrogant, immature, misguided.”
Of his perjured trial testimony, Ganim said:
“Wrongfully, I thought at that point … there is no excuse for it. I lied on the stand,” he said. “I tried to cover up. I guess I was still in denial at that point. And I did push back in any way I could to save myself. It was reprehensible.
“In my own mind, I was in denial and selfishly, wrongly, I guess at the time, I was trying to salvage what I did.”
Elizabeth M. Rowe, a lawyer for the state judiciary who investigates lawyer misconduct, asked why anyone should believe Ganim after he acknowledged being untruthful so frequently in the past.
“I’ve tried to spend the last 10-plus years laying the foundation for a better life centered on integrity,” Ganim said. “And I hope this committee will allow me to prove my trustworthiness going forward.”
His plan for the future was unclear.
He said he will probably remain mayor of Bridgeport for as long as the voters will have him. And as long as he is in office, he will not practice law.
But he said law is a goal he will not give up. His father, uncles and brothers are lawyers. Before politics, Ganim said he spent part of his professional time working as an appointed public defender and would like to return to it.
Return of a law license is not “a stepping stone” toward another run for governor, he said. But, he didn’t rule out such a run.
“Running for statewide office as a convicted felon is a huge, huge, huge hurdle,” he said. “The likelihood of me being a candidate for statewide office is probably not in the cards. That is not an element of what is going on here.”
©2022 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.