State Rep. Michael DiMassa was accused Wednesday of stealing more than $600,000 in federal COVID relief money by billing the city of West Haven, where he also worked as an aide to the City Council, for pandemic related consulting services that federal officials said he never performed.
Federal prosecutors and FBI agents said Wednesday that a portion of the alleged thefts appear to correspond with DiMassa’s purchase of tens of thousands of dollars in gambling chips at the Mohegan Sun casino. At the time, he was one of three city officials designated to oversee emergency pandemic spending.
DiMassa, 30, a West Haven Democrat who was charged with fraud, was arrested early Wednesday by FBI agents and was presented in U.S. District Court in New Haven shortly before noon. He was released on a $250,000 bond.
DiMassa’s name surfaced last week amid reports that the FBI, as well as the administration of West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, also a Democrat, were looking into what the mayor called a number of large and apparently irregular expenditures from about $1.2 million in federal funds.
“Over the last two weeks, I have personally reviewed many of West Haven’s federal CARES Act expenditures,” Rossi said. “I have come across several large expenditures that have caused me great concern. Some of the expenditures appear improper and may be potentially fraudulent.”
DiMassa was immediately stripped of all committee and leadership assignments Wednesday by House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford and House majority leader Jason Rojas of East Hartford.
“Elected officials are rightly held to a high standard of conduct and trust,” Ritter and Rojas said in a joint statement. “Even the slightest hint of wrongdoing bruises that trust.’’
State Senate Republican leaders called on Gov. Ned Lamont to initiate and oversee a statewide audit of all COVID-19 funds.
Senate Republican leader Kevin Kelly of Stratford and deputy leader Paul Formica said that all 169 cities and towns should be audited to restore public confidence that the federal money is being used for proper expenses.
Lamont’s budget director, Melissa McCaw, said the state Office of Policy and Management, known as OPM, is already investigating the use of the public money.
DiMassa is accused of defrauding West Haven with false billings he submitted through the Compass Investment Group, a consulting firm he registered with John Bernardo, also of West Haven. Bernardo is not identified in an FBI affidavit that details the charges against DiMassa.
One example of an alleged fraud detailed in the affidavit involves a May 5 payment by the West Haven “COVID-19 Grant Department” for what is described in the payment voucher as services to the West Haven Health Department for “COVID-19 Legal+ Lobbying+ Site work for COVID-19 Clinic.”
According to the affidavit, the invoice listed charges that included “305 hours of Consulting Service-Legislative Review Executive Orders – COVID-19, 483 hours of Consulting Service-Support Staff Services, 305 hours of Monitors/Security Site (April 2021-May 2021), and 102 hours of Consulting Service Lobbying Service-COVID-19 Federal.”
The amount billed to the City of West Haven was $85,595. West Haven issued a check for that amount the following day, May 6, to Compass Investment Group, LLC.
On May 7, 2021, the check was deposited into the Compass bank account and, over the next 10 days, DiMassa made a succession of six withdrawals in amounts ranging from $8,200 to $9,350, according to the affidavit. Over the same period, he is accused of six cash “Buy-ins” for $33,100 in chips at the Mohegan Sun.
DiMassa, administrative assistant to the West Haven City Council, is among a handful of city officials who received what others in local politics have described as substantial overtime payments for work they did during the pandemic. Rossi said four city employees who report to her — her executive assistant, the public works director, city attorney and personnel director — received overtime payments.
Rossi said DiMassa does not report to her and she is not aware what, if anything, he received. The New Haven Register reported early last month that DiMassa said he had collected about $14,000 above his normal salary over the course of the pandemic.
The West Haven City Council late last year authorized Rossi and her two designees — one of whom was DiMassa — to make decisions on how to spend the $1.2 million in federal COVID funds and to account for the spending. Not long after, DiMassa appeared on an email chain authorizing COVID related spending.
DiMassa made headlines in September 2017 when he announced that he would not accept his legislative salary of $28,000 per year until the state reached a budget deal. The budget was eventually signed that year on Halloween.
First elected in November 2016, DiMassa serves on the budget-writing appropriations committee, as well as serving on the judiciary and executive nominations committees. His website said Wednesday that he is still serving as vice chairman of appropriations, but state records show that he is no longer in that position.
While not serving in a top leadership position at the state Capitol in Hartford, DiMassa is a key player in his hometown of West Haven.
A graduate of Albertus Magnus College in 2013 with a bachelor of science degree in business and leadership, DiMassa served until 2013 as an assistant to West Haven’s mayor before becoming an administrative aide to the city’s registrar of voters.
He later assumed his current position as the city council’s clerk and legislative aide to the council.
How West Haven’s COVID relief money was spent and who got it was a hot issue in the primary election campaign and remains so going into the November election.
The Courant filed a public records request to West Haven in August for an accounting of how it disbursed what is known as CARES Act money, federal subsidies distributed to all Connecticut cities and towns to help cover unexpected costs of the pandemic. The city began providing some records last week.
West Haven applied for and received $1,150,257 for the second half of 2021, from July 1 to Dec. 30. It has until the end of the year to spend the money and had to certify in advance that the money would be spent in accordance with federal CARES Act guidelines.
Rossi’s political opponents have tried to weaponize her spending decisions. She said Friday she was shocked to find potential irregularities.
“After reviewing the expenditures, I suspect that some of these funds may have been diverted and not used for the purpose for which they were intended, a thought that sickens me,” she said in her internet statement. “I assure all of our residents that if the investigation proves any wrongdoing and fraudulent activity I will demand that anyone involved be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”