Testimony: Donovan’s biggest money men had stake in legislation

New Haven – The two biggest fundraisers for then-House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s 2012 congressional campaign were Harry Raymond Soucy and Mark Masselli, men with significant financial interests before the General Assembly, a campaign official testified Friday.

Soucy, according to previous witnesses, was responsible for delivering checks totaling $27,500 from donors trying to ensure that their roll-your-own cigarette business remained free of Connecticut’s steep tax on manufactured cigarettes.

Masselli is the chief executive of a chain of non-profit community health clinics that obtained a $15 million state bonding authorization in 2012. He delivered checks worth between $15,000 and $20,000, according to Sara Waterfall, who was the campaign’s deputy finance director.

On the fifth day of the conspiracy trial of Donovan’s former campaign finance director, Robert Braddock Jr., prosecutors elicited testimony from Waterfall about the tense chase for campaign money in late 2011 and 2012 as Donovan competed for the Democratic nomination with two rivals with a richer donor base.

The government, which completed its case Friday afternoon, has accused Braddock of conspiring with Soucy and others, including Donovan’s campaign manager, Josh Nassi, to hide the source of money Soucy brought to the congressional campaign. At the time, Donovan was top leader of the state House of Representatives.

Prosecutors say Waterfall was not part of the conspiracy.

Waterfall, 31, now a political science student at Central Connecticut State University, gave a jury in U.S. District Court an inside view of the business of raising money in a modern congressional campaign. She told them about the pressure to meet quarterly goals, all while keeping an eye on the competition.

The money was important for the goods and services it could buy, but also for the air of inevitability the campaign hoped to establish around Donovan as Democratic delegates met to endorse a candidate on May 14, 2012.

“We were trying very hard to meet as high a number as we could,” Waterfall said.

The goal was $1 million by the pre-convention reporting deadline of April 24, but the campaign was falling short by about $10,000, so a bounced check for $2,500 a little over 24 hours before the filing deadline created a moment of small drama, she said.

The check, which was written by Dana Graziano of Waterbury, was one of four handed in by Soucy in April. Others have testified that Graziano had been given $2,500 in cash by Paul Rogers, the owner of a smoke shop, to write the check.

Waterfall had no trouble remembering Graziano’s check: It was a Betty Boop designer check, with a red lipstick kiss. Graziano filled it out with purple ink.

Nassi called Soucy and told him the campaign needed a fast replacement. Gus Melita and Gabe Rosenberg, two campaign staffers out on a lunch run, were dispatched to Roger’s smoke shop to pick up a replacement, which came in an envelope with $100 cash.

Ten dollars was entered in the campaign books as a donation from Graziano to cover the bank fee for the bounced check, Waterfall said. She was unsure what happened to the other $90.

With a replacement check from Graziano, they managed to raise $1 million by the April 24 deadline.

Donovan is not charged in the case, but his name, voice and image have been part of its daily fabric. In video and audio recordings, Donovan has been heard assuring Soucy he is well aware that his friends wanted the tobacco legislation blocked.

In a text to Rep. Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, who is now the House majority leader, one of Donovan’s top aides, Laura Jordan, checks on the status of the cigarette tax as the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee is about to vote.

Aresimowicz tells her it will pass.

“We can fix it it later unless you want to flip votes on it,” Aresimowicz says. 

Without intervention, it will pass 30-17, he says. Jordan doesn’t reply.

The bill cleared the committee, but it died at the end of the session in May without ever reaching the House from the Senate. In one telephone call, Soucy asks Nassi if he needs to pay anyone in the Senate. He is told he does not.

Weeks later, the legislature passed a bill closing the loophole in special session, putting the smoke shops out of business.

Soucy, Nassi and six others have pleaded guilty, admitting to various roles in a conspiracy to use straw donors to hide the source of donations from smoke-shop owners that were intended to stop the passage of tobacco legislation.

Soucy was then a politically active correction officer and officer in AFSCME Local 387. He had been asked by David Moffa, the former president of Local 387, to help his friends who owned smoke shops. Moffa also has pleaded guilty in the case.

In what appears to be a separate investigation, FBI agents have subpoenaed records and interviewed legislators and others at the State Capitol about how a proposed $20 million fund for community health centers morphed into two $15 million funds, one exclusively for Masselli’s chain and the other open to all others.

Other than his mention Friday as a top fundraiser just behind Soucy, Masselli’s name has not been part of the conspiracy case being tried before U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton. 

Donovan, a Democrat from Meriden, entered the race for the open 5th District congressional seat as the frontrunner in a three-way race for the Democratic nomination. He was up against Elizabeth Esty and Dan Roberti, whom the Donovan campaign viewed as having better money connections.

Esty and her husband, Daniel Esty, a prominent Yale author who became the state commissioner of energy and environmental protection, each graduated from Harvard and Yale Law School, giving them a deep personal network of potential donors.

Roberti was a political newcomer, but his father is Vincent Roberti, a prominent Washington lobbyist and Democratic fundraiser.

Soucy’s importance to the campaign was reflected in a statistic presented from late 2011: The $10,000 he raised by then was 10 percent of the funds Donovan had raised from individuals.

Waterfall testified to a frustration she felt toward Donovan: He was reluctant to make re-solicitation calls to the ostensible sources of the $2,500 donations handed in by Soucy.

“When a donor gives to the campaign, we would try to get them to give more money to the campaign,” Waterfall said.

Under federal campaign law, a donor can make a maximum donation of $2,500 three times: once for the convention, for the primary and for the general election.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei referred to four donors whose checks had been handed in by Soucy.

“Were any of these individuals re-solicited?” he asked.

Waterfall hesitated, then said, “I don’t recall specifically.”

Mattei pressed.

“They were not,” Waterfall said.