New Haven – In a secretly videotaped encounter in 2012, then-House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, seemed to cheerfully take credit for killing a tobacco tax bill, then recoiled from the idea seconds later.
“I took care of ya, didn’t I?” a smiling Donovan told Harry Raymond Soucy, a union friend acting on behalf of smoke-shop owners trying to keep their roll-your-own cigarette business free of state tobacco taxes.
Donovan and Soucy then embraced, a scene played Thursday in U.S. District on the fourth day of the trial of Robert Braddock Jr., who was the chief fundraiser of Donovan’s 2012 congressional campaign.
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 political corruption, explicitly tied the death of the tax bill to $20,000 raised by Soucy for Donovan’s campaign and the prospect of more money.
“I’ve got another ten grand to give Josh tonight for killing the bill,” Soucy told Donovan, referring to his campaign manager, Josh Nassi.
“I didn’t kill the bill. I worked on the legislative side,” Donovan said, rapidly walking away from Soucy. “I did what’s right.”
“Alright,” Soucy said.
Then Soucy turned to Nassi and said, “I have an envelope for you.”
They walked to an empty room, where Soucy gave Nassi the ten grand that had sent Donovan fleeing.
“Alright, brother?” Soucy asked.
“Appreciate it,” Nassi replied.
The encounter was 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 passage of the tobacco legislation.
The government says that Soucy, who has pleaded guilty, led a group of smoke-shop operators in a conspiracy to bribe Donovan and others, including House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, to ensure that their business would stay free of Connecticut’s steep taxes on tobacco.
Donovan and Cafero deny wrongdoing, and neither has been charged or accused by the government of being aware of the effort to bribe them.
Both were featured Thursday on video and audio secretly recorded by government cooperators, evidence of how aggressively federal authorities pursued suspicions of corruption in the General Assembly.
Cafero was videotaped in his office at the Legislative Office Building during a meeting with Soucy and the smoke-shop owners. Soucy testified Wednesday that he left an envelope with $5,000 cash in Cafero’s refrigerator during the meeting, which Cafero called a lie.
On Thursday, to defend Soucy’s credibility, the government showed a video of the meeting. Soucy is seen walking toward the refrigerator with Cafero, asking for something to drink. But if he placed anything inside, it was out of the frame.
A smiling Cafero can be heard telling Soucy, “No, no, no. You know what I mean.”
Soucy testified Thursday that Cafero told him he could not accept a political contribution at the Legislative Office Building. There is no evidence that Cafero knew the envelope had cash.
Cafero said in an interview that he believed Soucy was making a contribution to the House Republican Campaign Committee, so he told Soucy that an aide, John Healey, would punch out, leave the Legislative Office Building and accept the check. Legislators cannot do campaign activities at the Capitol or in the LOB.
“Ray, wait a minute. Take a walk with Johnny, OK?” Cafero says on the tape.
Contributions to individual legislators are prohibited during the session, but not to political action committees, so long as the donor is not a lobbyist.
Cafero told The Mirror he would like the U.S. attorney’s office to release the tape of the entire meeting, which he called a benign discussion about the roll-your-own cigarette business. The government has offered no evidence of a serious effort to influence the GOP minority or that there were discussions other than the recorded meeting.
The focus has been Donovan, who in 2012 was the top leader in the House, a lame-duck who already had announced he was running for an open congressional seat instead of seeking re-election to the General Assembly. Soucy had repeated conversations with Donovan’s campaign staff about contributions and the tobacco bill.
And he also spoke directly to Donovan.
In phone calls and in person, Donovan left no doubt he was aware of Soucy’s desire to kill the tobacco legislation, but there was no evidence presented that Donovan was aware that Nassi and Braddock, who was his chief fundraiser, had been talking about contributions in connection with the legislation.
“Hey, buddy,” Donovan says in a recorded call to Soucy near the end of the legislative session in May 2012.
Soucy tells Donovan he is recovering from a heart attack, and the stress of the tobacco issue is not helping his recovery.
“I know. I’m hearing you, buddy,” Donovan says.
With no action on the bill in the waning days of the session, Donovan tells Soucy, “So far, so good.”
In another call, Donovan again reassures Soucy, “We’re working on it, absolutely.”
Soucy complains that the smoke-shop owners don’t care about his health, only the tobacco bill.
“They’re a cross between a vampire and a vulture,” Soucy says.
“I hear you, Ray, loud and clear,” Donovan says. “I understand where you are coming from.”
Donovan’s spokeswoman, Audrey Honig Geragosian, who has been monitoring the trial with Donovan’s lawyer, Shelley R. Sadin, said the recordings show that Donovan did nothing wrong.
“We’re glad that finally you get to hear something from Chris Donovan,” Geragosian said.
Soucy became the go-between for the smoke-shop owners and Donovan at the request of David Moffa, the former president of AFSCME Local 387, which represents correction officers in Cheshire. Soucy was the local’s treasurer, and Moffa had asked him to be its voice at the legislature.
Moffa, a friend of the smoke-shop owners, told them in November 2011 that Soucy could get them a meeting with Donovan. At his urging, they made a series of campaign contributions to Donovan, using straw donors to conceal their involvement.
Over the next six months, Soucy was their coach and guide to the politics of the Capitol.
The jury has heard Soucy described by Braddock’s lawyer, Frank Riccio II, as a “creep.” They have heard Soucy boast, exagerate and lie on wiretaps, which also recorded him using coarse, vulgar language to refer to women. He also falsely claimed to be a Vietnam combat veteran, once sold a stolen television and fraudulently stayed out of work on a medical complaint.
Riccio wants the jury to believe that the 61-year-old Soucy, who retired recently after 19 years as a correction officer, would say or do anything to avoid a return to prison — this time as an inmate.
“You know what it’s like in jail, don’t you?” Riccio asked.
“Yes,” Soucy replied.
What was the maximum sentence Soucy faces? Riccio asked.
“Do you want to spend 25 years in jail?”
“Do you think you could survive 25 years in jail?”
Riccio asked if he would lie to shorten his sentence.
“Are you an honest man?”
Riccio recounted Soucy’s lies about his military record, his willingness to sell a stolen TV and the medical fraud he committed as a state employee. He wants the jury to weigh those against Soucy’s promise to be truthful in the cooperation agreement he signed with the U.S. attorney’s office.
“Despite all of this, you want us to believe you are an honest man?”
“When did you become an honest man?”
“When I did the agreement.”