State GOP's fundraising firm pulls double duty for Shays

A paid fundraiser for the Connecticut GOP has also been retained by U.S. Senate candidate Christopher Shays and two other Republicans in intra-party races for federal office, a political love triangle that doesn't pass the smell test of some of their rivals and tea party members.

The state Republican Party outsourced its fundraising operation in October to PierceZappi Fundraising Group of Fairfield, a newly established consulting firm run by longtime Shays fundraising guru Kathleen Pierce and Bob Zappi, Westport's Republican Town Committee chairman.

With an anchor client in the fold, the firm then signed on to do the fundraising for Shays in his contest against Linda McMahon, as well as fellow Republicans Chris Coutu and Andrew Roraback, congressional hopefuls in the 2nd and 5th districts.

Critics of the arrangement contend -- some publicly and others privately out of fear that they will be blackballed by the GOP leadership -- that the firm's clients hold an inherent advantage over their opponents that could give them exclusive access to the master Rolodex of donors to the state party.

"At some point they've got to decide whose interest they put first, whether it's the party or a specific candidate they're working for," said Rob Merkle, a Wilton Republican who was unsuccessful in his pursuit of the GOP nomination for Congress in 2010.

"There's a lot about the system that doesn't sit well with me. They're leveraging relationships."

State GOP Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. insisted that there is a firewall in place to protect proprietary donor information from being shared with the firm's other clients.

"In no way will there be any access to our house file," Labriola said. "I am very confident that there is no conflict and that there will be no appearance (of a conflict)."

The master list of donors to the Connecticut GOP is said by party insiders to contain the names of 9,000 Republicans, a trove of valuable information about the major players and their giving history.

Daria Novak, who is competing against Coutu for the GOP nomination in the 2nd Congressional District that covers the eastern part of the state, was eager for an explanation of the relationship between the firm and its clients.

"I don't know what arrangements have been made between the CT GOP and the candidates with the fundraising firm," Novak said in a statement Wednesday.

Both of the firm's partners echoed Labriola's comments, saying that the firm's employees are assigned to separate clients to ensure there is no cross-pollination.

"We absolutely do not share lists and databases between clients," Zappi said. "It's just inappropriate. It's not something we would do."

None of the firm's clients have asked to see each other's donor lists, said Zappi, who attributed the popularity of his consulting business to the track record of its employees.

"They gain a competitive advantage because we're professional," Zappi said. "We have a methodical and effective approach to fundraising, based on skill sets."

Pierce, a paid fundraising consultant for Shays during his 2004, 2006 and 2008 congressional campaigns, characterized the donor lists of each of the firm's clients as "sacrosanct."; 203-625-4436;

McMahon, a two-time candidate for Senate who lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal in the 2010 election, declined to comment through a campaign spokeswoman.

Carla Rea, a McMahon supporter who is a member of the RTC in Westport where Zappi is town party chairman, doesn't get what the fuss is all about.

"I don't see any problem with that," Rea said. "I think Linda has access to the same list."

The consensus among Republicans is that McMahon, who spent $50 million of her wrestling fortune on her previous bid for office, should have no trouble raising the requisite funds to mount a campaign.

Unlike two years ago, McMahon is accepting individual donations over $100 per person.

Shays spokeswoman Amanda Bergen scoffed at the suggestion that the campaign's fundraising consultant has a conflict.

"That's ridiculous. Kathleen Pierce has worked for Chris Shays since 2004, and the opposition is just jealous that she's not working for them," Bergen said.

Merkle said he has yet to pick a side in the GOP Senate race, but he appears to be down on Shays.

"I'm not a fan of career politicians," Merkle said.

Justin Bernier, who is part of the GOP field in the 5th District House race that includes Roraback, had no comment through his campaign manager Scott Will. The 5th District covers Danbury, Meriden, New Britain, the Litchfield Hills, Farmington River Valley and part of Waterbury.

Christopher Healy, who was state GOP chairman before Labriola and is now campaign manager for Lisa Wilson-Foley in the 5th District, was reticent to get into a dustup over the situation.

"It's not going to affect our ability to raise the resources to beat (Democrat) Chris Donovan," Healy said.

Former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Stonington, who is backing Coutu for Congress, said it's a stretch to characterize the donor lists as being secret.

"Most of these lists can be reconstructed from the public record, although you're not supposed to do that," Simmons said.

A Shays ally who lost to McMahon in the 2010 GOP Senate primary, Simmons said that his fundraising consultant from that race is now ironically working for McMahon.

"I don't recall anyone saying over the last 15 or 20 years, 'I lost the race because someone stole my list,'" Simmons said. "To me, it's just a bunch of B.S."

"However, if donor lists are to be shared, then a conflict of interest would be further complicated by the fact that Chris Coutu received a $1,000 donation from Linda McMahon and also shares a donor list with Chris Shays. But until I know more, I cannot comment further."