By Mary E. O’Leary, Staff Reporter

HARTFORD — It was the same, but different.

Chris Donovan remains as Speaker of the House but starts a special legislation session Tuesday, June 12 at the State Capitol and then will relinquish his role during the session. Donovan will participate in various legislative that will take place during the session. (New Haven Register Photo/Peter Hvizdak)House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, opened the special legislative session Tuesday after conferring with Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and welcoming colleagues who came by to wish him well.But then Donovan turned the gavel over to Deputy Speaker Kevin Ryan, D-Oakdale, and after a short press avail left the chamber when the House went into a quick recess.Donovan, the two-decade lawmaker who has been walking the legislative halls for longer than that when you add in his work as a labor and health lobbyist, was behind closed doors most of the dayNegotiations over the day’s agenda and the decision to hold two special sessions, going from one to the other to expand the business before lawmakers beyond budget matters, was Sharkey’s purview and Donovan was just one more vote in the chamber.The speaker’s decision to stay on the sidelines was prompted by a scandal that has enveloped his 5th District congressional campaign where he fired three campaign staff members almost two weeks ago after his campaign finance manager, Robert Braddock Jr. was arrested by FBI agents who charged him with hiding the source of $20,000 in donations.The arrests are tied to alleged influence pedaling to kill a bill that would tax roll-your-own smoke shops as cigarette manufacturers. The bill was offered as an amendment in April from the administration after it lost a court battle over it. It was never voted on in the Senate or the House, but will be brought up today.Donovan has said several times that he did not know anything about the tainted donations and has never sold his vote. He and two other Democrats, Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti, head to a primary on Aug. 14, as do four Republicans.What was it like to be in this strange position, Donovan was asked.“I opened the chamber and my deputies as always are here to pitch in. So that is fine,” he said. The six deputies were expected to take turns at the podium overseeing the House session.He said it was “a usual day. We had a caucus, people talked about the issues, we did a summary of the bill in caucus, people asked questions. It’s like every other day … we’ll be going through the process of trying to get legislative business done.”Robert Braddock in front of the Elizabeth Esty campaign tracker’s camera at a Donovan event back in February. ( File Photo/Christine Stuart)

The press asked Donovan how members of the caucus on Tuesday reacted to him given the arrest of Braddock, which happened after they were out of session.

“Everybody has been great,” Donovan said.

The speaker was questioned about whether the scandal gives the legislature a black eye.

Donovan ignored this and reiterated that what lawmakers want is to get legislation passed in what promises to be a long day.

“As a legislator, my job is to represent the people in my district and that is what I’m going to do,” Donovan said as the day began.

By 6:45 p.m., Donovan had spent the day in his office, as caucus members visited and an old friend, former state Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven, stopped in.

In the meantime, House Republicans asked questions about the items in the 400-plus budget implementer bill, discussions that had started around 2:30 p.m. and were still going strong by 7 p.m.

Donovan then made an appearance, watching Sharkey sum up the session before he cast his vote in favor of the implementer bill around 7:40 p.m., which included the roll-your-own legislation.

The vote was 88 in favor and 53 against, with 10 lawmakers absent. Four Democrats voted against the measure, but no Republicans voted in favor of it.

Donovan chatted with some lawmakers after the vote, before stopping to talk with the press. But when the questions were only about the investigation, he reiterated that he couldn’t talk about that and he was gone again. It was time for more waiting.

State Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, said Donovan was available to lawmakers throughout the day in his office. Lemar, a freshman legislator, said the day wasn’t that unusual, as the speaker is often off and on the floor as he negotiates behind the scenes.

In a late evening interview, Donovan said, “It was a smooth day. … It’s always a long day when you do the implementers, and today is no exception.”

“Colleagues came in, filling me in on various projects, asking for my support,” Donovan said as the debate continued on a television in the background. “Usually, I don’t have a chance to have lunch with my colleagues in the (caucus) room … but I had a chance to have lunch and catch up with folks. But, pretty much, it’s not unlike any other day. … I’m not one to stand on the dais for hours and hours and hours,” Donovan said.

“It’s a good bill, it has a lot of good things in it to help the state of Connecticut. It got a good strong vote,” Donovan said. Despite the partisan vote, he said: “There are probably some things Republicans like in it.”

Donovan’s spokesman, Doug Whiting, earlier in the day said Donovan wanted to stay out of the hallways.

“He didn’t want to be a distraction. He does want to be here to vote because he feels like he owes that to his constituents. … He doesn’t feel it would be appropriate to be here for the debate, but he is watching the debate so he can make an informed vote,” Whiting said.

Sharkey, during an early recess, said it “was hard” not to see Donovan at the podium, “but I think it is the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances … it is not as much fun as it is when he is on the dais.”

He said, as the majority leader, he would have been part of the negotiations on the session with Donovan if everything was proceeding normally.

“I’m usually the speaker’s wingman. This time I had (to) fly solo without a wingman so in that sense it was a little different,” Sharkey said.

He said Donovan’s decision was appropriate, “just to avoid any possible perception that he was in any way influencing what we were doing today.”

Mark Greenberg, one of the four Republicans running in the 5th District, was not as kind to Donovan.

He said Donovan’s absence from the podium “is another reminder of how damaged and ineffective Donovan’s campaign finance scandal has left him, his campaign and his position in the General Assembly.”

Greenberg said Donovan “can’t talk about the FBI investigation, he can’t perform his constitutional duties as speaker, and he can’t even say how many people work on his campaign.

That list of problems adds up to a couple of things Chris Donovan can do: step down as speaker and suspend his campaign for Congress. He stepped down temporarily today because of these problems – he should make that action permanent,” Greenberg said in a statement.

Greenberg thought the reference to the scandal putting another “black eye” on the state was appropriate.

He said instead of answers, the voters are getting “’hear, speak and see no evil’ responses and a speaker who can’t preside over his chamber today.”

Asked whether the scandal was on the minds of many of the lawmakers, Sharkey said he did not think it was.

“To be honest, I don’t think so because this was such a – it was an issue that was really out on the margins during the regular session and most folks didn’t even know much about it. I think everyone is very confident that the speaker knew nothing about the allegations … of what the finance director was engaged in … in that context we are all here rallying to support him,” Sharkey said.

The majority leader said for state elections the size and the source of the questionable donations to Donovan would not have been allowed.

“If anything it points out the fact that our state election system is the toughest in the nation and it should not give anyone pause as to how we actually conduct our elections at the state level, “ said Sharkey, who wants to see changes at the federal level.

Sharkey was still concerned that Super PACs are coming to Connecticut for the upcoming congressional and U.S. Senate elections and he referred to a threat from Michelle Rhee of Students First that she was going to do this.

The majority leader said a campaign reform bill that was approved by lawmakers to provide transparency around Super PACs will likely be vetoed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

On today’s unusual session, Sharkey said the Republicans were correct when they complained that many of the bills to be considered went beyond budget issues and that is why they will go immediately into a second session to consider the wider universe of bills.

“We want to make sure we are doing this procedurally the right way,” Sharkey said. Before the discussion, Sharkey said complaints by the GOP would be “a little bit duplicitous,” given their original objections.

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, however complained that during the entire session that ended May 9, lawmakers voted on 466 bills, with 122 of them resolutions on appointments, leaving some 344 substantive bills.

Cafero said there are 120 “individual concepts” on the double session agenda today that will be dealt with in one day. “This is a precedent that we will have to live with forever and it is the wrong thing to do,” he said.

On a surprise issue, Sharkey said a broad bill exempting businesses seeking grants from the state from Freedom on Information rules would be removed from the agenda. He said the request came from the governor’s office and he thought it went too far.

“It was something that we didn’t see frankly until it was brought to our attention,” Sharkey said. He said he thought it applied to proprietary information from small businesses.

“It’s a little bit bigger than that, it gets into some of the other larger corporation grants that the administration is doing under First Five and elsewhere,” Sharkey said.

He said an FOI request for details of the CIGNA deal with the state brought an objection from the administration, but the FOI commission overruled it.

It was withdrawn in an approved amendment in the early evening.