New Haven – Former House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan asserted his innocence Tuesday outside U.S. District Court as jurors began deliberating whether a top campaign aide was guilty of conspiracy in the corruption case that derailed his 2012 congressional campaign.
Donovan, a Meriden Democrat, arrived minutes after the government and defense made closing arguments in the trial of his campaign finance director, Robert Braddock Jr., who is accused of accepting illegal donations as part of a scheme to bribe Donovan while he was speaker of the House.
“Whatever the jury decides in this case against Rob Braddock, I stand here to confirm what I told you a year ago: My vote was never for sale and I was not involved in Ray Soucy’s conduit contribution scheme,” Donovan said.
Donovan declined to answer questions, saying the investigation may be continuing. It was his first detailed statement on the case since a press conference after Braddock’s arrest a year ago, ending his status as a congressional front-runner.
“I wanted to take questions, but because I haven’t heard whether the investigation is over or not, I can’t,” Donovan said.
Soucy is the former correction officer and AFSCME union official who coached smoke shop operators in how to kill legislation closing a loophole that left their roll-your-own cigarette business free of Connecticut’s tobacco taxes. He promised and delivered access to Donovan.
A key to that access, Soucy testified, was a series of $2,500 donations from smoke-shop owners made in the name of conduit or straw donors that kept the true source of the money hidden. Those donations eventually totaled $30,000 — $27,500 to Donovan and $2,500 to the state Democratic Party.
Then Soucy became an FBI cooperator, wearing a wire in conversations with his former conspirators and with Donovan, who never was charged.
Donovan acknowledged Tuesday that a video of one conversation backstage at his May 14, 2012, nominating convention made it appear he was part of an illicit effort to kill the tobacco bill.
Donovan said Soucy surprised him backstage, literally stepping from behind a curtain.
“I took care of ya, didn’t I?” a smiling Donovan says in the recording. But he walks away when Soucy mentions the $20,000 he previously raised for Donovan and adds, “I’ve got another ten grand to give Josh tonight for killing the bill.”
Josh Nassi was Donovan’s campaign manager.
“I didn’t kill the bill. I worked on the legislative side,” Donovan tells Soucy in the recording. “I did what’s right.”
Outside the courthouse, where a hotdog vendor and a few curious passersby looked on, Donovan tried to explain the exchange as legislative-speak.
“I said, ‘I took care of you.’ Now, let me explain that,” Donovan said. “I basically said, ‘Congratulations.’ If I said, ‘I took care of you,’ that’s all it meant.”
On the video, which was played in open court, Donovan literally flees as Soucy explicitly ties $20,000 in past contributions and $10,000 in new contributions to the demise of the tobacco bill.
“You heard me forcefully correct him and say, ‘No, you were wrong, I did the right thing. I didn’t kill the bill,’ ” Donovan said Tuesday. “Now, Ray Soucy had a script. I didn’t have a script. I told the truth.”
But Donovan declined to say why he did nothing to reject the $10,000 that Soucy was about to hand his campaign manager, Nassi, who has pleaded guilty in the case.
The four $2,500 checks Soucy gave to Nassi that night were cashed by the Donovan campaign, making Soucy the campaign’s biggest fundraiser.
Donovan stuck to his own script, declining to answer that question.
Audrey Honig Geragosian, a friend and spokeswoman, said later that Donovan had tuned out Soucy until the mention of killing the bill.
“He basically didn’t even hear the part about the money,” she said.
In his statement, Donovan talked about the role of big money in politics, which the Supreme Court has protected as a form of political speech.
“What happened to me is a cautionary tale,” Donovan said. “Everybody running for office should be worried about what happened to me — because it could happen to them, too.”
Donovan said any politician is vulnerable to a contributor, perhaps an old friend, who shakes their hand and suddenly talks about an issue in a way that entangles them in a plot.
“It can happen anywhere. It can happen to anyone,” Donovan said.”
Donovan was one of the legislature’s biggest supporters of public financing of campaigns for state office, and he said he will fight to bring reform to federal finance laws, though exactly how was unclear.
Donovan talked about the damage to his reputation.
“What has gotten me through it all is the support of my family, and my close friends, and the knowledge that Ray Soucy is wrong — public servants are not for sale,” Donovan said. “I am not and never was.”
Donovan’s appearance once again pushed Braddock to the background.
Braddock’s lawyer, Frank Riccio II, told the jury in his closing argument that so much of the evidence was against others that he had to look to his right and assure himself that Braddock actually was the defendant.
Braddock is the only one of seven people indicted on conspiracy charges who has not pleaded guilty. Soucy also pleaded guilty in a separate agreement.
Riccio told the jury members that they shouldn’t make Braddock pay for the sins of others.
“What did Robert Braddock know?” Riccio said. “That’s what this case is about.”
The prosecutors, Assistant U.S. Attorneys Christopher Mattei and Eric Glover, said Braddock knew that Soucy was trying to kill the tobacco legislation and that the source of the $27,500 was the smoke-shop owners, not the individuals whose names appeared on the checks.