Defense rests without offering evidence in political corruption case

New Haven — The defense rested Monday without offering testimony in the conspiracy trial of Robert Braddock Jr., the campaign aide whose arrest a year ago opened a scandal that mortally wounded the congressional candidacy of Christopher G. Donovan.

The jury in U.S. District Court will get the case Tuesday after closing arguments in a trial that focused on what the government says was an attempt by the owners of roll-your-own cigarette stores to bribe Donovan, a Democrat who was then the speaker of the state House of Representatives.

U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton rejected a defense motion to dismiss the case against Braddock, who was the finance director of Donovan’s campaign until his arrest, when Donovan fired him and his campaign manager, Joshua Nassi.

Braddock, 34, was the only one of seven people indicted on conspiracy charges to go to trial. Nassi was the other campaign official to be indicted, and he has joined five others associated with the tobacco business to plead guilty. Donovan was not charged.

Over five days last week, the government played audio and video recordings of the smoke shop owners’ agreeing to make a series of $2,500 contributions to Donovan’s campaign to persuade him to stop the passage of a bill closing a loophole that kept the roll-your-own business free of Connecticut’s steep cigarette tax.

With the focus on what several conspirators admitted was a scheme to bribe Donovan and others, Braddock all but receded to the background of a trial that likely will be remembered for two things:

  • A roguish former union official and correction officer named Harry Raymond Soucy, who was charged separately and has pleaded guilty. He coached the smoke-shop owners to make bribes, then recorded them after becoming an FBI cooperator.
  • The FBI’s recordings of Soucy’s conversations with top legislative leaders: Donovan, House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk.

Donovan was shown in the conversations to be aware of the effort to block the tax — and seemed willing to take credit. The evidence was ambiguous as to what, if anything, he did help the smoke-shop owners or whether he knew that the donors viewed their contributions as bribes.

The tax bill died from inaction in the Senate without reaching the House.

“I took care of ya, didn’t I?” Donovan tells Soucy on May 14, the night of his congressional nominating convention and a week after the legislative session ended. But he bolted from the room when Soucy tied $30,000 in contributions to the defeat of the bill, saying he didn’t kill any legislation.

Cafero was recorded rebuffing an offer of an illegal contribution from Soucy to a House Republican political action committee. Instead, Cafero instructed the donor to go off site with aide, where the contribution could be legally accepted.

Aresimowicz was shown in text messages to be closely monitoring the tobacco legislation, and he was told by Soucy in one conversation that Donovan already had been given $10,000 from the tobacco interests.

The legislature voted in special session in June, not long after Braddock’s arrest, to close the tax loophole, effectively putting the smoke shops out of business.

Braddock’s lawyer, Frank Riccio II, is expected to argue Tuesday that Braddock, an out-of-state consultant hired by the Donovan campaign, had a limited a role in the campaign and the effort to raise money from smoke-shop owners.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei turned the spotlight back on Braddock.

In arguing against Riccio’s motion to dismiss, Mattei summarized evidence that he says showed that Braddock was aware of the conspiracy and helped hide it by accepting donations made using straw donors.

In one recorded conversation, Braddock is told by Soucy that a $2,500 check mistakenly came from a donor with a legal interest in a smoke-shop, undermining plans to keep secret the source of the campaign cash.

Braddock tells Soucy he must immediately hang up and stop the check from being deposited. He then directed his deputy not to deposit the check, never telling her why.

Braddock, who was arrested May 30, 2012, was charged in three of the eight counts of an indictment returned by a grand jury in July 2012, a month before Donovan lost a three-way Democratic primary for the open 5th Congressional District seat.

The indictment accuses Braddock of: conspiring to hide the true source the tobacco donations, aiding and abetting in making the straw donations, and causing a false statement to be made to the Federal Election Commission.