NORWALK, Conn. – Mayor Richard Moccia refused to answer a question at a candidates forum last week. "I found it offensive," he said.
The question, asked at a League of Women Voter's mayoral debate Thursday, was: "What kind of background checks should be required for bidders on city contracts? For example, checking for connections with organized crime."
"How does that play into what we've done?" Moccia asked later. "It's never been brought up here. What's the basis for that question?"
Democratic challenger Andy Garfunkel answered first and said that he thought research should be done whenever a company is selected for a contract, a 30-second response. Moccia, the Republican incumbent, used even less time. He said the question was outrageous, and he wouldn't go there.
Both answers are shown in the video above.
"I'm not a sensitive person, but I think I know where they're going with that because the next connection was that because I am Italian that I must have connections with organized crime," he said Friday. "The question had no basis in fact, no basis in this campaign."
Moccia said on Thursday, "I know who asked that question." On Friday he said he thought the debate screeners should not have allowed the question and wondered why it had been asked.
Dianne Lauricella, who organized the debate with other league members, said "four excellent people" had screened the questions, including two former council members — a Republican and a Democrat — as well as two unaffiliated people — a church leader and a neighborhood leader. Lauricella was not part of the screening committee and said the volunteers were selected because they were "neutral" and hadn't endorsed anyone running for office. Criteria included no personal attacks. "We had a pile of rejected questions," she said.
"The screening committee felt it was not a personal attack, and I don't think it was meant to be," she said, adding that moderator Catherine Sturgess of Wilton had the option to reject any question. "She is a neutral party, and she felt that it was a reasonable question, because, although they didn't spell it out, we do go for waste contracts, and like it or not – I am an Italian myself – there is still an issue with the potential of organized crime related to things."
Lauricella, an environmental consultant, said the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection asks an extended list of questions on applications for waste permits, looking for ties to organized crime.
"I'm Italian and I wasn't offended by the question," she said, adding that many ethnic groups are associated with organized crime.
The Moccia campaign received $1,000 contributions each from the president of City Carting, its owner and a sales executive. A reader of The Daily Norwalk provided a link to a July 9, 2004, article in The Journal News of Westchester County, N.Y., saying that City Carting had had problems in the past with legislators who suspected it had a tie to organized crime. The article stated City Carting was given a five-year, $85 million contract after it replaced two men, hired to run the contract, who were suspected of having ties to organized crime.
"City Carting does business all over the state," Moccia said, adding that the company was already collecting Norwalk's garbage when he became mayor six years ago.
Lauricella said she thought she knew who submitted the question and thought it wasn't personal. Moccia disagreed. "This came out of nowhere because of a personal vendetta," he said, adding that there was an implied meaning. "We all know what we're talking about. They happen to be Italian Americans, is that it? Maybe the FBI looked at one guy 20 years ago. The question is, has anybody been indicted and convicted? I haven't seen it.
"I don't think it's an issue in the campaign and I still say it's a code word and we know where everybody is going with it."