Manafort family business defends name as cousin sits in jail

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — What do you do if you share a name with one of the most prominent defendants in the special counsel’s investigation into Russia?

Paul Manafort’s daughter decided to change her name . Leaders of New Britain, Connecticut, considered renaming Paul Manafort Drive, a street named after his father.

At Manafort Brothers Inc., a family-owned New England construction firm, they are defending the Manafort name and legacy while distancing themselves from their cousin, Trump’s former campaign chairman who was recently blasted by prosecutors for years of lies and lawbreaking.

The Manafort name has been a familiar one in New England politics and business for decades, creating a predicament for the family as the 69-year-old former attorney is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.

Manafort Brothers is one of New England’s best known construction companies. Its name pops up alongside highways, at hotel construction sites and on heavy equipment used to dig holes or tear down buildings. After 9-11, Manafort Brothers helped remove what was left of the World Trade Center buildings.

A recent press release touting Manafort Brothers’ 100th anniversary boasts that the company “is still led by the strong moral and business ethics of the Manafort family,” a line that raises eyebrows among some who have followed the family history.

The company says Paul Manafort’s criminal issues have nothing to do with the firm and that business has not been affected by the prosecution. Paul Manafort has never worked at the company and has no ownership in it, according to President Jim Manafort Jr.

“I could almost count on one hand how many times somebody has asked me what the relationship is,” he said.

Manafort was convicted of tax and bank fraud charges in Virginia, where he’ll be sentenced Thursday. He’s set to be sentenced again March 13 in Washington after pleading guilty to illegally lobbying on behalf of Ukrainian political interests.

In a sentencing memo in the Washington case, prosecutors accused Manafort of brazen violations of the law, including witness tampering and perjury even after being indicted. Manafort, 69, asked for leniency but faces decades in prison.

Paul’s grandfather, James, founded the construction business as a demolition firm — New Britain House Wrecking Company — after coming to the U.S. from Italy in the early 1900s. The family says its original name in Italy was Manaforte, which translates to strong hand.

Paul Manafort’s father, Paul Sr., later took over the company with three of his brothers.

Paul Sr. was a Republican mayor of the old mill town of New Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, then appointed to jobs in state and federal government. Articles from the New Britain Herald and The Hartford Courant between the 1960s and 1980s detail a complicated legacy for Paul Sr., who was linked to numerous scandals, some involving the family business. After his name emerged in the investigation of a job-fixing scheme, he acknowledged to the Courant that he had a colorful political career.

“I’m good copy,” Paul Sr. told the paper in 1980, the same year his son founded the Washington lobbying firm Black, Manafort and Stone.

Paul Sr. was eventually charged with two counts of perjury, which he denied and which were ultimately dropped. He died in 2013.

These days, Manafort Brothers employs 700 people, Jim Manafort said. It is based in Plainville, Connecticut, with offices in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

When a fight emerged last year in New Britain over an effort to rename Paul Manafort Drive, eight Manaforts wrote a letter on Manafort Brothers letterhead opposing the change.

They called Paul Sr. a family patriarch and said he had helped build the company and its “sterling reputation.” They distanced Paul Jr.’s actions from the legacy of his father, calling them “wholly unrelated.”

The Republican mayor, Erin Stewart, ultimately vetoed a resolution by the Common Council to change the street name to Ebenezer D.C. Bassett Way, after the first African-American to graduate from what is now Central Connecticut State University.

The company has had some more recent trouble with the law. In 2014, it agreed to pay a $2.4 million fine and implement internal reforms to settle federal criminal and civil investigations into allegations that it lied about using a minority subcontractor on a $40 million highway project in Connecticut. Jim Manafort said the company doesn’t believe it intentionally did anything wrong.

“There were some policies that were questionable. In the end, we had to settle it because it didn’t make sense to keep arguing over it,” he said.

He highlighted the family’s good works through a foundation that distributes more than $100,000 annually to the community, and said they are proud of the name and their accomplishments.

Pat Karwoski, 77, a New Britain native and retired nurse who fought to change the street name, said when she sees the Manafort Brothers name, it embarrasses her. She said it seems to her that some family members have done good philanthropic work, but its assertion that it’s known for morals and ethics is not true.

“They may all be good people, but they cannot deny what their history is,” she said.

Customers appeared unfazed by the connection. The developers of a hotel in downtown Providence where Manafort Brothers recently worked as a subcontractor said they were happy with their work.

“As long as their price came in good and they give you quality,” said developer Joe Paolino, a former Democratic mayor of Providence and ambassador to Malta under President Bill Clinton. “That’s what I care about in business.”

Manafort’s daughter, Jessica, wants nothing to do with the family name. A Hollywood director, she changed her name to Jess Bond last year, telling the New York Post she sought the change “to separate myself and my work from a public perception that has nothing to do with the person that I am.”

The credits for her most recent project, a romantic thriller called “Rosy,” make no mention of the name Manafort.

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