It wasn't supposed to go this way.
Not very long ago, TicketNetwork Inc. was a fast-rising corporate star in Connecticut's dimly lit business sky.
Donald Vaccaro's firm was chosen as one of newly elected Gov. Dannel Malloy's "First Five" companies and handed $7.8 million in state aid. The ticket resale exchange (no longer labeled a "scalper") was a cutting-edge success story in a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Then came legislative controversy. A lawsuit against a prominent critic for testimony at a public hearing. Allegations of racial slurs at a drunken Oscar Night party. Another lawsuit, this time against Vaccaro. Investigative stories about apparently shady ticket practices. A give-back of all that state cash. And Vaccaro taking accelerated rehabilitation, probation, and a leave of absence from his company.
Vaccaro, 49, is now back at work at the South Windsor-based operation, telling the Hartford Business Journal he's taking "a back seat to most of the day-to-day operations." His company has more than 400 employees now and reported upwards of $111 million in revenue in 2010.
"Yes, we've had a roller-coaster year, but our focus never left how to keep improving the customer experience," Vaccaro said in a written response for comment on this story. "TicketNetwork is stronger than ever."
"We keep growing our footprint globally, we keep hiring locally here in Connecticut," Vaccaro said in his statement. "In fact, we still expect to hire upwards of 200 people by December 2012, faster than any of the other First Five companies."
If that's true, and it's all happening despite the fact that TicketNetwork has given back all that state economic incentive money, it raises questions about why Malloy's administration needed to give Vaccaro all that cash. Critics asked similar questions about Malloy's decisions to provide cash to a Gold Coast hedge fund and to West Hartford deli.
Those issues aside, the roller-coaster ride for Vaccaro's company may not be over yet.
Multiple lawsuits are still hanging fire in state courts. And bigger questions remain unresolved about whether more regulations or tougher state enforcement are needed to control the resale of tickets to concerts, theater and sporting events. Critics insist unsuspecting consumers are being duped by a multi-billion-dollar industry that was once called scalping.
Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection issued a report to lawmakers last February that had some nasty things to say about "deception" by some ticket resellers that confused consumers, and speculative practices such as selling tickets to consumers that resellers didn't even own.
The report also cited some in the ticket resale market that bought up masses of tickets for ticket resellers by computer "bots" or by "a legion of employees," which reduced the number of tickets directly available to consumers.
Ominously, the agency also mentioned it had "an active investigation ongoing regarding these practices."
None of those allegations were directed specifically at TicketNetwork, which insists it's simply an "exchange" that facilitates transactions between ticket resellers and consumers, and never takes physical possession of tickets.
An investigative report by the New London Day newspaper raised questions about TicketNetwork's practices, citing evidence and sources indicating large volumes of tickets being sent to properties owned or controlled by Vaccaro.
There seems little doubt that the Consumer Protection report and those news stories and everything else that's gone on with TicketNetwork in the past year have damaged Vaccaro's chances of getting the legislation he wanted. He and others in the ticket market wanted to guarantee that ticket buyers would have the right to resell those tickets.
Some venues and performers have begun issuing tickets that can only be picked up at the door of the event, cutting the ticket resellers out of any possible deals.
It was that issue that led the Bushnell's president, David Fay, to tell a legislative committee back in 2011 that ticket resellers were ripping consumers off. He and other opponents say venues want to make sure people can buy tickets directly at face value, rather than paying resellers inflated prices.
TicketNetwork filed suit against Fay, claiming he defamed the company, a charge Fay and the Bushnell's lawyers flatly deny. That suit is still slogging through the courts.
State Rep. Patricia Dillon, D-New Haven, thinks the suit is intended to shut up TicketNetwork's critics. "That troubled me a lot," she says of the legal action. "It's going to intimidate people."
"Winning isn't the point," Dillon says. "It's intended to tie people up in litigation."
According to Dillon, this unprecedented lawsuit based on testimony at a legislative hearing could also have a chilling effect on who is willing to tell the truth to lawmakers.
State Sen. Paul Doyle, a Wethersfield Democrat and co-chair of the legislature's General Law Committee, has a similar attitude. "I don't think anyone should be sued for expressing an opinion at a public hearing," he says.
Doyle says Vaccaro's decision to file a lawsuit against Fay and the Bushnell basically killed whatever chance there was for the legislation favoring ticket resellers. "People lost enthusiasm for it," he says.
Brian O'Donnell, TicketNetwork's lawyer in the case, said in an e-mail that filing a lawsuit over remarks at a public hearing should be considered "a good thing."
"A person who makes a false and defamatory statement to the legislature at a hearing can and should be held liable for such a statement," O'Donnell argues.
The other lawsuit involving TicketNetwork's boss is coming from a bouncer at a Real Art Ways' Oscar Night event. Robert Barnes is suing Vaccaro for "extreme and outrageous conduct" that Barnes says included a racial slur.
Reports of the Feb. 27 incident included claims that Vaccaro was drunk and being obnoxious to a couple of women, including fondling one of them. When Barnes escorted Vaccaro outside, according to the lawsuit, Vaccaro called him a "black mother-fucker" and told him Vaccaro had "something for your black ass."
Vaccaro denied making any racial comments and filed a motion to dismiss the suit, but the case is still going on.
The police showed up and charged Vaccaro with breach of the peace, intimidation due to bias, and criminal trespass. In May, Vaccaro was granted accelerated rehabilitation, which means he can have those charges wiped from his record if he completes two years of probation.
In July, Vaccaro told the Hartford Business Journal he considers Barnes' legal action "nothing more than a nuisance lawsuit."