A fixer’s tale of attempted bribes

New Haven – His name was Harry Raymond Soucy, a brash and egotistical union leader and correction officer who portrayed himself in the backroom of a Waterbury smoke shop as a political fixer able to get things done at the Connecticut State Capitol.

His solution: Bribes disguised as contributions to the top Democrat and Republican in the state House of Representatives in 2011 and 2012, including $5,000 cash he says he left in one legislator’s refrigerator at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

“In my opinion, politics cost money,” Soucy told his friends at the smoke shop in an FBI recording played Wednesday for a jury in U.S. District Court.

The backroom conversation in November 2011 was the beginning of a salty primer on Soucy’s dark view of how the legislature worked – and the start of a conspiracy that would derail a friend’s congressional hopes and leave him and six others as convicted felons.

At the time, Soucy and his friends had no idea that his cynical take on the political world was being recorded by Patrick Castagna, a smoke-shop owner wearing a wire for the FBI.

The men were trying to get a meeting with Christopher G. Donovan, a Democrat who was then the speaker of the state House of Representatives and the front-runner for the 2012 Democratic nomination for Congress in the 5th District.

Their goal was to stop any legislative effort to close a loophole that left their roll-your-own cigarette business exempt from tobacco taxes, which briefly made the RYO industry a gold mine.

Soucy told them a meeting would cost at least $10,000 in contributions to Donovan’s congressional campaign, preferably made in the names of straw donors who could not be traced to them.

A recording of that conversation and others were played Wednesday in U.S. District Court on the third day of the conspiracy trial of Robert Braddock Jr., the finance director of Donovan’s congressional campaign, which imploded with Braddock’s arrest on May 30, 2012.

By the end of the day, Soucy had performed on the witness stand as he has at the Capitol, freely dropping names and hints about his influence as a union man with positions as an AFL-CIO vice president and officer in an AFSCME local and leader of a regional labor council in Waterbury. 

Soucy, a tall and burly man with a shaved head and a flat, rumbling voice, boasted about being able to get Donovan to return a phone call in 10 minutes, something he said that no lobbyist could do.

But he also was the hothead who left an impolitic voicemail for a top aide to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy after the governor snubbed him at the 2011 Jefferson Jackson Bailey dinner, the Democrats’ major fundraiser. It was a message that the aide played for an incredulous Malloy and his staff, prompting the governor to say, “Does he know I’m the fucking governor?”

When the episode was reported by Ted Mann in his behind-the-scenes view of Malloy’s first year as governor for the Connecticut Post, Soucy took a razzing from his friends in conversations recorded by the FBI. Soucy was unapologetic.

In several calls captured on wiretaps, Soucy made clear he also had easy access to House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, a fellow AFSCME member whose conversations and text exchanges with Soucy were played or displayed in open court Wednesday.

And he also described a meeting with House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, about the tobacco tax. According to Soucy, it ended with Soucy placing an envelope with $5,000 cash in Cafero’s office refrigerator and telling Cafero there was something for him.

In Soucy’s telling, Cafero refused to accept the cash, but instructed an aide, John Healey, who then oversaw the House Republican campaign committee, to immediately take Soucy across the street to the Officers Club and instruct him how to convert the cash into five $1,000 checks made out to Cafero’s leadership political action committees.

“Mr. Soucy’s testimony is a patent lie,” Cafero said in an interview Wednesday. “At no point did anyone, including Mr. Soucy, leave any amount of money in my refrigerator. That’s out of a movie.”

Donovan, Cafero and Aresimowicz have not been charged or accused by authorities of violating the law.

Audrey Honig Geragosian, a spokeswoman for Donovan, said Soucy’s testimony reflected braggadocio, gall and failed efforts to make bribes.

“Having heard the testimony today, it’s really clear that rather than being a tale about bribery, this is a tale about betrayal,” Geragosian said. “To hear Ray Soucy tell it, he owns Chris Donovan, Chris Murphy and even Larry Cafero. I think all of us with good sense know otherwise.”

In a recorded conversation with Castagna, Soucy described himself as a man who knew how to make longshot bets on the right politicians, then reap the rewards of access.

He said he was key to AFSCME backing Murphy — then a state legislator, now a U.S. senator — in Murphy’s uphill race against U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-5th District, in 2006.

“Chris Murphy will do any fucking thing in the world for me. I was the first one to believe and invest in him,” Soucy tells Castagna in the call.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover asked Soucy: Was that claim “literal or hyperbole?”

“Hyperbole,” Soucy replied.

His conversations with Aresimowicz, who became majority leader this year, were chummy and familiar. They gossiped about a legislator who had been arrested on drunken driving in one chat, with Soucy noting the arresting cop was not an AFSCME member.

In another, Aresimowicz demanded to know why Soucy’s union had given money to Rep. Jeff Berger, D-Waterbury, his rival for majority leader. Soucy said Berger was afraid to cross him.

“Good, then tell him to drop out of the majority leader’s race, so I can get the job,” Aresimowicz said.

“His ego is too big to drop out,” Soucy said.

“I know. I still like him,” Aresimowicz said.

Soucy introduced Aresimowicz to Castagna at a Donovan fundraiser, and Castagna gave Aresimowicz a cigar that he says was hand wrapped by a Cuban living in Florida.

“I like the occasional cigar,” Aresimowicz told Soucy later.

Soucy told Aresimowicz his friends wanted the RYO business left tax free. He made a cryptic reference to $10,000 that his smoke-shop buddies already had given to Donovan’s campaign, referring to it as “ten pictures.”

“Ten pictures?” Aresimowicz said, sounding puzzled.

“As you know, a picture is worth a thousand words,” Soucy said.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Aresimowicz said.

Rose Ryan, a press aide to Aresimowicz, said Wednesday the majority leader had no comment on Soucy’s testimony or the recorded conversations.

“He has talked with federal prosecutors in the past. As the trial is ongoing, it would be inappropriate at this point to talk about this matter further,” Ryan said.

Cafero said he met with Soucy, who was then the treasurer of AFSCME Local 387, representing correction employees in Cheshire. They had met many times, always about union business and prison issues, Cafero said.

But during the legislatiive session in 2012, Soucy arrived at Cafero’s office with no prison employees, only smoke-shop owners. Cafero said they talk about the industry and the owners’ concerns about efforts to tax them as cigarette manufacturers.

On the way out the door, according to Cafero, Soucy said “my guys” wanted to make a contribution to Cafero’s political action committees. He told him to meet with an aide, Healey. Cafero said he assumed the “my guys”  Soucy was referring to were his union members, who had donated in the past.

But hours later, Cafero said, a panicked Healey called to say that Soucy had given him an envelope that turned out to contain cash, not checks. Cafero told him to immediately return the money, and Healey drove off to find Soucy at a restaurant.

When Cafero was interviewed by the FBI last year, he said he was told his response was appropriate.

“I was told directly you did nothing wrong. Quote, you did everything right, and neither you nor your staff is a target or under investigation,” Cafero said. “I can go to sleep. I did the right thing.”

Braddock is the only one of seven persons indicted in the case who has not pleaded guilty to federal charges relating to what the U.S. attorney’s office says was an effort to bribe legislators to kill tobacco legislation. Josh Nassi, who Donovan’s campaign manager, is among those to plead guilty.

The regular 2012 session of the General Assembly ended with no action on a Senate bill to tax the roll-your-own industry. For all Soucy’s efforts to kill the bill in the House, the measure never made it to that chamber from the Senate.

A similar bill passed weeks later in special session — putting the smoke shops out of business.

Braddock receded to the background of his own trial Wednesday as the testimony focused on prominent legislators and the large personality of Ray Soucy.

Soucy, 61, of Naugatuck is a unifying, central figure in the conspiracy, the man who acted as a go-between for owners of roll-your-own tobacco shops in their attempt to bribe Donovan and other legislators to keep their business tax free.

He started as a conspirator and ended as an FBI cooperator, recording his friends. Soucy, who pleaded guilty before the seven others were indicted, is awaiting sentencing by U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton, who also is presiding over Braddock’s trial.

Soucy testified Wednesday about coaching the smoke-shop owners and an investor, who turned out to be an FBI undercover agent, how to hide the source of nearly $30,000 in donations eventually made to Donovan’s congressional campaign.

Soucy and the undercover agent, John Keelan, described efforts to use campaign donations to bribe House Democrats and Republicans with donations to the Donovan campaign and a House Republican political action committee.

He told Castagna that was how to do business.

“This is called politics,” Soucy said.

“I don’t know anything about this game,” Castagna replied.

“This game runs on one thing — dollars,” Soucy said.

“What happens if it goes bad, Ray?” Castagna asked.

Soucy saw no need to worry until April 25, 2012, when he met at the Omni Hotel in New Haven with Keelan, the undercover agent he knew as John Kellly, a money guy ready to make a major investment in RYO shops.

As Kelly left, FBI agents confronted Soucy.

“They told me what was really going on, and I was in trouble,” Soucy testified.

They offered him a chance to cooperate in hopes of leniency at sentencing.

Soucy immediately turned on his friends. He made his first recorded phone calls for the FBI that night.