Donovan scandal leaves questions, not reforms

When U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton imposes sentence Monday on Ray Soucy, the self-described political fixer who became an FBI cooperator, she is likely writing the coda to a campaign-finance scandal that tilted a congressional race and tainted the Connecticut General Assembly.

Barring unexpected developments, the federal investigation of an attempt to bribe former House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, with illegal campaign contributions appears destined to conclude without the indictment of a legislator, the passage of reforms or an answer to this lingering question:

Why did Soucy, who was on a first-name basis with legislative leaders as the political liaison for unionized correction officers, so quickly assume that the best way to stop a proposal to tax the roll-your-own cigarette business was to give Donovan’s congressional campaign $27,500 in secret contributions?

Legislators, including some who were embarrassed to find their friendly conversations with Soucy captured on FBI recordings, have written off the episode as an aberration that reflected on Soucy, not the ethics of the General Assembly or the ways in which campaign contributions translate into political influence in Hartford.

Soucy, 61, who retired this year as a correction officer and AFSCME union official, was the middleman who advised smoke shop owners in late 2011 that the best way to keep their business free of the state’s steep taxes on manufactured cigarettes was to secretly funnel money into Donovan’s congressional campaign.

He introduced the smoke-shop owners to Donovan, who still was House speaker, and to two top congressional campaign staffers after advising the shop owners to make an initial contribution of $10,000 using straw donors to hide the real source of the money.

“I think, unfortunately, Ray did believe that was the way to get things done,” said House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “Ultimately, he is going to have to pay the price.”

“I think it’s a reflection solely on him,” said House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk. “I’ve been here 22 years. I’ve dealt with hundreds and hundreds of lobbyists who pitched their case, their issues. Never, never, never has anyone offered me a bribe, even hinted at a quid pro quo. Nor, by the way, did Ray Soucy.”

An FBI video shows Soucy trying to hand Cafero a campaign contribution in his legislative office, a violation of rules barring campaign activity at the State Capitol or Legislative Office Building. But Soucy never connected the contribution to action sought on a bill. Cafero refused the envelope and instead directed Soucy to meet off premises with a staffer who oversees the House GOP political action committee.

The video was played six months ago at the trial of Robert Braddock Jr., who was Donovan’s campaign finance director. Braddock was the only one of eight charged in the conspiracy to be convicted at trial. The other seven, including Soucy, pleaded guilty.

Five of the eight have been sentenced, all receiving at least 21 months in prison: Braddock, 38 months; Josh Nassi, the campaign manager, 28 months; George Tirado, a smoke-shop owner, 26 months; David Moffa, who introduced the smoke-shop owners to Soucy, 24 months; and Benjamin Hogan, a smoke-shop employee, 21 months.

Paul Rogers, another smoke shop owner, and Daniel Monteiro, a businessman who provided some of the cash that went to Donovan’s campaign, also await sentencing.

Soucy faces a prison sentence of between 24 months and 30 months under U.S. sentencing guidelines. His lawyer, Steven B. Rasile, filed a motion seeking leniency on the basis of Soucy’s cooperation, his status as a former prison guard and his significant health problems, including a back condition and coronary disease.

“Mr. Soucy respectfully asks this Court to take into consideration the undoubted prison abuse he will suffer, which will be seriously exacerbated given his fragile physical state,” Rasile wrote.

The government’s sentencing motion was filed under seal, which is common in cases involving cooperators.

Donovan was not charged, but the arrests of his campaign manager and finance director in the weeks before the Democratic primary in August 2012 effectively ended his campaign for the open seat in the 5th Congressional District. Elizabeth Esty won the primary and the general election.

At each sentencing, Arterton has called the scandal an affront to the political and legislative system. The judge, whose biography says she was an undergraduate political science major at Mount Holyoke College, says the prison sentences are meant to deter others.

“The message is the cost of corruption ought to be too high,” Arterton said.

Aresimowicz and Donovan were recorded talking amiably to Soucy about the prospects of keeping the roll-your-own business free of the cigarette tax, which allowed the smoke shops to undercut other stores by $30 on a carton of cigarettes.

In late December 2011, a wiretap records Soucy asking Aresimowicz about the prospects for killing an expansion of the cigarette tax. He refers to $10,000 the smoke-shop had recently given to Donovan’s campaign as “ten pictures.”

Ten pictures?” Aresimowicz asked.

“Yeah. You know, a picture is worth a thousand words,” Soucy replied.

On May 14, 2012, the night of the Democratic nominating convention in the 5th Congressional District and a week after the General Assembly’s regular session ended without action by either chamber on the tobacco legislation, Donovan warmly greeted Soucy in an FBI video.

“I took care of ya, didn’t I?” a smiling Donovan told Soucy.

But Donovan’s friendly tone abruptly changed when Soucy, who by then was an FBI cooperator trying to secretly gather audio and video evidence of corruption, explicitly tied the death of the tax bill to $20,000 raised by Soucy for Donovan’s campaign.

“I’ve got another ten grand to give Josh tonight for killing the bill,” Soucy told Donovan, referring to his campaign manager.

“I didn’t kill the bill. I worked on the legislative side,” Donovan said, rapidly walking away from Soucy. “I did what’s right.”

But there’s no evidence that Donovan ever questioned his staff about campaign contributions handed to the campaign by Soucy, nor did he prevent Nassi from accepting more money from him.

By the end of May 2012, FBI agents had arrested Braddock, the first of eight to be charged and convicted.

The General Assembly passed the tobacco legislation in special session, putting the smoke shops out of business.

Donovan’s deputy finance director, Sara Waterfall, testified at Braddock’s trial that the campaign was under intense pressure in the days before the nominating convention to hit the $1 million mark in fundraising.

Nick Nyhart, a former Connecticut activist who now is president of Public Campaign, a national campaign-finance reform group based in Washington, D.C., said the relentless money chase by congressional campaigns often places candidates in compromising positions, even when no law is broken.

Candidates bob and weave, sounding agreeable to donors wthout making explicit promises, he said.

The Donovan scandal was painful for Nyhart. Donovan was an important ally on campaign finance reform after Gov. John G. Rowland resigned nine years ago, pressured by an impeachment inquiry and a federal corruption investigation.

“It felt terrible to see a person who has been a champion on changing the campaign finance system have his own campaign violate those laws and have his campaign ended by the illegal activity of his campaign staff,” Nyhart said.

Rowland’s successor, M. Jodi Rell, and legislators negotiated sweeping reforms to restore public confidence, including a ban on contributions by state contractors and a new voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns, which sets spending limits and restricts participants to accepting maximum contributions of $100.

With 80 percent of legislators now relying on public financing and limiting themselves to $100 contributions, legislators say they saw no obvious reforms left to impose in response to the Donovan case.

The only changes to campaign-finance oversight in the past two years weakened the post-Rowland reforms, according to advocates. The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature reduced the resources of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, which oversees campaign finance laws, and they liberalized fundraising rules to allow the state parties to make unlimited expenditures.

“Instead of tightening it up, we’ve turned it into a Swiss cheese of a program,” said Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut.

In 2013, legislators were less concerned with reforms than giving their parties the ability to offset independent expenditures possible through the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unrestricted spending by independent groups.

Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, a candidate for governor, said partisan politics also likely was one reason why the legislature’s Democratic majority did not respond more forcefully.

“If Ray Soucy were a Republican and this scheme had involved a Republican candidate for Congress who was sitting in the legislature, the Democrats would have screamed a lot louder,” McKinney said.

McKinney immediately called for a legislative inquiry after the arrest of Braddock, but he was alone. Others suggested the legislature should not interfere with the rapidly unfolding federal iinvestigation.

“John Rowland was a Republican,” McKinney said. “Democrats took every opportunity to go after him, and he gave them good reason.”

McKinney noted that the legislature launched an impeachment inquiry into Rowland, not waiting for the conclusion of a federal investigation.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the Donovan case clearly has damaged the General Assembly.

“It reinforces the stereotype that some have of elected officials serving two masters, of being tempted to sell influence,” Sharkey said. “That’s an unfortunate perception. I personally do not believe that’s true, but I certainly understand why the public might perceive that.”

The legislature already has created a clean-election system for its own elections, but it has little ability to set rules for congressional fundraising, Sharkey said.

Sharkey said he has imposed tighter internal controls and clearer lines of authority within the House caucus. Under Donovan, who had a hands-off management style, three top aides had equal authority, Sharkey said.

“I think it’s really about who’s in charge and who is taking ultimate responsibility for the operation,” Sharkey said. “I have a more hands-on approach to staffing. And I have one chief of staff who understands where the lines are and is responsible for ensuring those lines aren’t crossed.”

 

 

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