Fundraiser sentenced to 38 months in prison in case that derailed congressional campaign

New Haven -- Robert Braddock Jr., the chief fundraiser for former House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s ill-fated congressional campaign, was sentenced to 38 months in prison and fined $7,500 Tuesday for conspiring to trade Donovan’s influence for $27,500 in illegal campaign contributions.

U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton said the sentence she imposed on Braddock, a 34-year-old former Marine whom she praised for an admirable record of charitable involvement, was meant as "a stark warning" to other campaign professionals who would undermine the electorate's confidence in politics and elections.

Braddock was convicted in May after a trial that featured secret recordings of him and Donovan’s campaign manager, Josh Nassi, talking to smoke-shop owners about contributions they made in the hopes Donovan would keep their business tax free. Braddock's lawyer, Frank Riccio II, had asked for a sentence of probation and home confinement.

But the U.S. attorney’s office asked Arterton to impose a punishment within the range prescribed by sentencing guidelines: 41 months to 51 months in prison. Prosecutors said Braddock helped hide the source of illegal campaign contributions intended to subvert the legislative process.

“Crimes against our democratic institutions and processes are among the most serious crimes prosecuted by the United States government. These crimes breed skepticism, drown out the average citizen’s say in his or her government and threaten to upset the public’s consent upon which our democratic system rests,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Riccio had argued in his sentencing memo that Braddock was a minor player, who took direction from others.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei, who prosecuted the case with Glover, said Braddock was a campaign professional who knew he was violating campaign laws by conspiring to hide the source of the Donovan campaign's illegal contributions.

Arterton agreed, calling Braddock a willing participant in an affront to democracy: An attempt to compromise the legislative process, while hiding from the Federal Election Commission and the voters of the 5th Congressional District the true source of Donovan's campaign funds.

"This was one of the crassest, most flagrant violations of fundamental FEC regulations," Arterton said.

Arterton said Braddock did not initiate the conspiracy.

"But he knew what it was. He assisted in it. He encouraged it," she said.

She nonetheless showed a small measure of leniency, setting a sentence three months less than the minimum suggested by the guidelines. 

The leniency, she said, was due to his military service, his otherwise clean criminal record and the work since his arrest with a charity outside Orlando, Fla., that provides 25,000 meals every month to the hungry.

Braddock declined to address the court, but he told reporters on the courthouse steps that he maintained his innocence, though he expressed gratitude to Arterton for acknowledging his contributions to society and cutting him a small break.

He said a worse punishment would have been another congressional campaign.

"You couldn't force me to work in politics ever again," said Braddock, who had been a professional political fundraiser. "The judge, if she wanted to be extra harsh, she should have sentenced me to work on another congressional campaign.”

Braddock took pride in saying he refused an FBI invitation to wear a wire and try to collect evidence against others in the Donovan campaign. He called Nassi, whom he says cooperated with the authorities, "a rat."

"I have certain convictions," Braddock said. "Probably the prosecution would disagree with this, I still have my integrity." 

Riccio said Braddock would decide within the week if he would appeal his conviction or sentence. As Riccio spoke to reporters, Braddock was sending a text message to his family in Florida, telling them of his sentence.

A jury of nine men and three women convicted Braddock on conspiracy and election-law violations related to the 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 at the end of May 2012, when Donovan was considered the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 5th District.

A federal grand jury eventually indicted Braddock, Nassi and five others. All but Braddock pleaded guilty, as did an eighth and pivotal figure in the conspiracy, Harry Raymond Soucy, a politically connected union official who coached the smoke-shop owners.

Over five days at the trial, 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, a Democrat who controlled which bills came to a vote in the House.

Coached by 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.

Soucy became a government cooperator when confronted by the FBI.

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.

Donovan lost a three-way Democratic primary a year ago. The victor, Elizabeth Esty, won the general election in November.

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