A Pennsylvania-based debt collector who sought contracts from at least three Florida county court clerks to chase down people who owe money to the county court clerks has been charged with paying out political bribes to land contracts.
On March 15, a federal prosecutor in Chicago announced the charges against Donald Donagher Jr., who had owned and served as CEO of Penn Credit Corporation.
According to the indictment, Donagher and Penn Credit, from 2009 to November 2016 used campaign donations and free political services, among other offerings, to secure “favorable treatment for Penn Credit” in the pursuit of lucrative debt collection deals with the clerks of court in Orange, Brevard and St. Johns counties, as well as in Cook County, Ill.
According to the indictment, the alleged activities began in Chicago in 2011, where Donagher allegedly contributed to a scholarship fund administered by Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, just weeks before Penn Credit landed the debt collection contract there.
From there, the indictment says, Donagher allegedly steered more campaign donations and political services on behalf of Brown, as well as other donations to causes led by Brown or affiliated with her office.
Brown has not been charged in connection with Donagher’s alleged activities.
In all, U.S. Attorney John Lausch said the alleged bribes amounted to “tens of thousands of dollars.”
In 2013, the indictment says, Donagher met with Brevard County Courts Clerk Scott Ellis, identified in the indictment as “Clerk D,” to discuss the upcoming debt collection bid process. According to the indictment, Donagher at that time offered Ellis campaign contributions, as well as to “partially or fully subsidize a picnic for the Clerk’s office” and to “purchase shirts for Clerk’s Office employees to wear at charity events.”
“Donagher persisted with these offers even after learning of Clerk D’s state practice of not accepting anything, including campaign contributions, from vendors or prospective vendors doing or seeking to do business with the Clerk’s Office or Brevard County,” the indictment said.
A few months later, the indictment said Donagher contributed $15,500 to “Brevard County charities” after meeting with the Brevard County sheriff and Titusville fire chief. He then allegedly asked those officials, asking them to tell the Brevard County Courts Clerk that he was “a good guy” and “didn’t want to lose his contract.”
Penn Credit did not obtain the Brevard courts clerk’s debt collection contract in 2014, the indictment said.
After that, Donagher allegedly sent an email to the Brevard clerk’s office, offering to donate $75,000-$112,500 paid from “50 percent of all of our fees generated January 2015 through May 15th, paid monthly,” if the clerk would let Penn Credit continue its work on behalf of the county courts clerk.
In Orange County, Donagher allegedly instructed Penn Credit employees in 2014 to get behind the campaign of Courts Clerk Tiffany Moore Russell, saying: “Early money always wins.”
In December 2014, the indictment said Donagher met with Russell, identified as “Clerk C,” and donated $2,500 “to a charity selected by Clerk C.”
In February 2015, Donagher allegedly hired a government relations firm led by Russell’s campaign manager, “which provided the government relations firm would receive a payment of approximately $2,000 a month from Penn Credit.”
And in September 2016, the indictment said Donagher allegedly sent an email to Penn Credit employees, saying about “Clerk C:” “She busted my stones and said [another debt collection company competing for the same contract] ponied up another 10k.”
He then directed his employees to send enough money through a lobbyist to reach “20k.”
And in St. Johns County, the indictment alleges Donagher in 2016 wrote five $1,000 checks to the campaign of Courts Clerk Hunter S. Conrad, identified as “Clerk E.” Those were followed by additional donations in 2016 totaling $3,000 more.
In November 2016, the indictment says Donagher received a note from a lobbyist asking if he had seen a note from “Clerk E” “thanking the lobbyist for his ‘generous support and help during my campaign.” The indictment said Donagher replied “I did. It would be nice to have the whole account. 100 percent.”
None of the three Florida courts clerks face allegations of wrongdoing stemming from Donagher’s indictment or alleged actions.
In all, Donagher, 67, faces one count of conspiracy and five counts of bribery.
According to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, if convicted, Donagher could receive up to 5 years in prison under the conspiracy charge, and 10 years for bribery.