His hairline is receding, follicle fading brought on by a combination of age and stress. His designer shirt, jeans, and shoes — not to mention fashionable black-rim glasses — suggest a man who understands the importance of appearance, knowledge derived from years in the image-driven public-relations industry. He sips water and lime from a mojito-style glass and totes a BlackBerry that most likely puts your cell phone to shame. For Christ’s sake, his own attorney has gone on record calling him a “little nerdy schoolboy.”
This is T.J. Connolly? Public-relations guru turned alleged felon? San Antonio’s own Public Enemy No. 1? The guy staring at a lifetime (and then some) in prison?
I must admit, upon meeting Connolly for the first time, I’m a little disappointed.
After all, considering the man is under indictment for a double-digit sum of felony charges relating to illegal campaign contributions — some to San Antonio City Councilman Philip Cortez, others to Bexar Metropolitan Water District board member Blanche Atkinson — I was expecting a hip-hop-worthy entourage of attorneys and PR spinsters, maybe a few heavy-handed intimidation tactics to keep this particular story on the favorable side. At the very least, I expected Connolly to be more physically imposing.
Instead, for our late-afternoon interview — a rarity of late; Connolly had sworn off in-person interviews until he agreed to a one-off sitdown with the Current — it’s nothing more than the fashionably dressed Connolly and Daphney Morgan, senior account executive for Connolly & Company, Connolly’s public-relations firm. We’ve gathered to talk about the past, the future, and the criminal schemes that Connolly allegedly masterminded in between.
“I wake up every morning and go to bed every night with this on my conscience, this monkey on my back,” Connolly says of the indictments he faces. “Life has always been about my three children `who range in age from 3-9 years` and my business. I have my kids every other weekend and every other Tuesday and Wednesday, and I’m in the office seven days a week. That’s my life, 100 percent. There’s not a whole lot going on in between.”
Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed begs to differ.
Spearheaded by Reed, the County indicted Connolly in January, and again in May, for illegally funneling campaign contributions through his Connolly & Company employees. The grand monetary total of that second set of charges — the ones made out to Cortez? A whopping $1,500. According to the DA’s office, each of Connolly’s alleged actions are third-degree felonies and carry a punishment of two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The charges leveled against the company could result in fines of up to $20,000 apiece.
Connolly doesn’t deny the charges. In fact, when the first set of indictments was announced in January, Connolly fired off a late-night email to members of the media — unbeknownst to his attorney, Adam Cortez — describing the crimes in question.
“I’ve always been honest, but my attorney wasn’t pleased,” Connolly said of the email. “I did what I would have advised a client to do: Don’t play word games. Take full responsibility. Even if I didn’t know it was wrong, I take full responsibility. I’ve always said that ignorance of the law is not a defense. I didn’t know it was illegal, but that is not necessarily an acceptable excuse. If I knew it was illegal, would I have risked a 20-year career over $2,750?”
That’s a question the Current would have liked to have asked others involved in the Connolly fiasco. If only those sources would talk. A sampling of the responses received by the Current when soliciting on-the-record interviews:
• Councilman Philip Cortez, in a prepared statement: “When I accepted the checks back in 2006, I had no knowledge of this activity between Mr. Connolly and his employees. I would not have accepted those contributions had I known that these individuals had been, or would be, personally reimbursed by Mr. Connolly. I have also returned all contributions that I received from Mr. Connolly for my campaign for City Council.”
• BexarMet, via a statement from Public Affairs Officer Mike Lopez: “BexarMet declines to comment on a pending criminal proceeding.”
• Julian Castro, for whom Connolly served as an unpaid consultant during his 2005 San Antonio Mayoral campaign, did not respond to a phone message.
• Even outspoken Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who has worked both with and against Connolly, declined comment through a spokesperson.
Wolff has, however, previously commented on Connolly’s situation to the Express-News, and he, like Connolly, was surprised to hear that Connolly’s charges weren’t filed as Class A misdemeanors. The two worked together on behalf of VIA Metropolitan Transit in the mid-1990s, then waged political warfare against one another last year when Connolly — working for BexarMet — accused Wolff and former State Representative Robert Puente (whose office did not respond to an email inquiry) of attempting to turn over the District to the San Antonio Water System. (In an interesting twist, earlier this month Puente was named acting CEO for SAWS.)
Connolly says he doesn’t begrudge those who declined comment — or those who copped out with prepared statements — for their lack of candor, not when they have little to gain from involving themselves in a mess he admittedly created.
“I have played aggressively in this market for my clients,” says the 45-year-old Connolly. “I’ve been aggressive, played aggressive, and played aggressively against this DA and County Judge and Puente on behalf of BexarMet. I’ve fought hard on my clients’ behalf for them to survive as an entity, and I’ve played hard. But I’ve played honestly. Now the tables have turned.”
Connolly says the charges — and potential prison time — that await him pale in comparison to the loss of his wife, Patsy Connolly, who committed suicide less than two months into the initial criminal investigation. Patsy Connolly, according to attorney Adam Cortez, suffered from bipolar disorder.
“`The investigation` caused her a great deal of stress,” Cortez said. “You could tell `the suicide` was tearing T.J. apart. I couldn’t deal with it if `a loved one` committed suicide and I suffered that loss.”
In somewhat morbid fashion, his wife’s death helped Connolly put his pending charges in
“These have not been the best 10 months of my life upon reflecting on the last 45 years,” he said, “but there’s a reason things happen. You can either get mad or get angry with God, or you can just deal with it. I prefer to deal with it.”
Connolly deals by throwing himself into the two aspects of life he still enjoys — work and family. When not with his three children, he can more than likely be found at the office of Connolly & Company, sending out emails at all hours of the night. Work, Connolly admits, keeps him away from a quiet, lonely home.
“I don’t prefer private time,” Connolly says with an exasperated tone that suggests he in fact dreads it.
Connolly, as expected of a man who has built a mini-empire in the San Antonio public-relations field, tries his best to convey a sense of confidence and self-assurance. He says he doesn’t want sympathy, even from those who decry Reed’s prosecution of him as nothing more than a small-time vendetta. He refers to himself on more than one occasion as a “big boy,” often enough that it appears he might actually be trying to reassure himself of that fact.
Those that work with Connolly on a day-to-day basis — as opposed to a daily basis, which implies stability — admit that the past few months have taken their toll.
“It’s been difficult, just because you never know what to expect now that you’re going into the office,” says Morgan, who has worked off-and-on for Connolly & Company for the past four years (and is not one of the employees Connolly reimbursed for campaign contributions). “Even when you wake up and see the news and what’s going on today, you’re wondering what’s going to happen next. All this stuff is up in the air, and it’s difficult.”
Either Connolly’s fucked, or he isn’t. He’s likely either going to prison for a good stretch of time, or he’ll plead down to misdemeanor charges, pay a hefty fine, and go on about his personal and professional business. Connolly suspects that the case won’t be resolved — by trial, plea, or other — until 2009, perhaps even 2010. He claims that his business has only suffered one client loss in the wake of his indictments, despite his less-than-reputable WOM of late.
He holds back on the topic of District Attorney Susan Reed, of whom it’s obvious he’s no great fan, saying only that he “would have liked to have been treated like every other Texan that has found themselves in the exact same position.”
Not likely. Not when Connolly has engaged in political crossfire with too many powerful people in Bexar County. Not when he’s riling up Bexar officials by labeling his indictments “vindictive and selective.” Not when he says County officials are treating him like “Al Capone Jr.” And certainly not when he’s baiting Reed with passive-aggressive swipes like the following:
“I hope the citizens of Bexar County, by these indictments, can sleep safer at night. I hope their security is more ensured by these indictments, and I hope the $150,000 `Connolly claims the County has spent on his case` has provided security and safety that didn’t exist before this happened.”
Although his future — one that perhaps includes prison bars, armed guards, and the end of his professional career — is staring him square in the face, Connolly claims that over the course of the last year, he has actually come to view the world in far less selfish terms.
“This isn’t a pity party ... in the big scheme of things, with things going on in the world today, with young men and women dying in Iraq every day, this is not a big thing,” he says. “We’ve got $4 gas right now, and this is not a big thing. I’m able to put this in perspective. I used to think the world revolved around me, and this has been a wonderful eye-opener for me.
“One day this will be resolved,” he adds. “I hope to be alive when we get to that point.”
With that, we exchange a few more pleasantries, shake hands, and part ways. Have I just embraced Satan in stylish jeans, or simply shaken hands with a man who unknowingly broke the rules and may pay a substantial price for his mistake?
It’s hard to tell, and considering Connolly is a master in the art of public relations, that’s probably no coincidence. Either way, a couple of years from now, Connolly will simply be another inmate — living proof that justice reaches even the most ivory of towers — or just one more `alleged` white-collar criminal who got over on the system.
Until then, sit back, exercise a little patience — this could, after all, take a while — and enjoy your tax dollars at work. •
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