Jury convicts Donovan campaign aide in bribery case

New Haven — A federal jury took less than three hours Tuesday to convict Robert Braddock Jr., a top campaign aide to former House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, on charges related to a conspiracy to bribe Donovan with illegal campaign contributions.

The jury of nine men and three women convicted Braddock, 34, on all three counts related to a scheme by the owners of roll-your-own cigarette stores to keep their business exempt from the state’s steep tax on manufactured cigarettes.

Braddock was the finance director of Donovan’s 2012 congressional campaign until his arrest a year ago, when Donovan fired him and his campaign manager, Joshua Nassi, who later would plead guilty to conspiracy charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Janet Bond Arterton scheduled sentencing for Aug. 13. Braddock faces a statutory maximum of 12 years, though he is unlikely to get the maximum as a former Marine with no criminal record.

Over five days last week, the government played secret video and audio recordings of major figures from the General Assembly, including Donovan, House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. None of the politicians were charged.

The smoke-shop owners were recorded discussing how to secretly funnel nearly $30,000 to Donovan’s campaign, with brief talk of a side effort to hedge their bets by giving $5,000 to the Republican minority in the House. Most of the evidence was focused on the tobacco merchants’ efforts to influence Donovan.

“There were days of this trial when I thought that Chris Donovan was sitting next to me, rather than Mr. Braddock,” said Frank Riccio II, who defended Braddock. “I do believe there was a spillover. There was an effect that was unfortunate, and I think that in part led to the conviction.”

But the government lawyers pointed in their closing arguments to ample evidence that Braddock was aware that the smoke-shop owners were trying to influence Donovan and that they were concealing the source of their money by employing straw donors.

In one tape played for the jury to bolster their arguments, Braddock is heard discussing how straw donors were found. In another, he quickly acted to stop a bank deposit when told that one donation had been mistakenly made in the name of a man associated with the cigarette store.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover said the best Braddock could claim was a willful ignorance of an obvious criminal conspiracy that began in November 2011 and continued until Braddock’s arrest May 30, 2012.

Coached by a politically active union leader, Harry Raymond Soucy, the smoke-shop owners made a series of $2,500 donations, eventually giving $27,500 to Donovan’s campaign and $2,500 to the state Democratic Party.

Braddock was charged with conspiring to hide the true source of the tobacco donations, aiding and abetting in making the straw donations and causing a false statement to be made to the Federal Election Commission.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei told the jurors that Braddock undermined an important element of the political system.

“You have the right to know who has given money and how much,” Mattei said.

In the case of the Donovan campaign, the most money came from the smoke-shop owners through Soucy, something invisible to voters, reporters and anyone else who reviewed Donovan’s campaign finance reports, he said.

Braddock was one of seven people indicted in the scheme. All but Braddock pleaded guilty.

Soucy, who was charged separately, also has pleaded guilty.

A bill to close the tobacco tax loophole died from inaction on the Senate calendar when the 2012 session of the General Assembly ended at midnight May 9. But legislators passed a similar bill during a special session in June, just weeks after Braddock’s arrest.