New Haven — It was only a phone call. But by dialing a politically connected union buddy on Nov. 2, 2011, David Moffa initiated a conspiracy that would derail a congressional campaign, taint reputations at the State Capitol and produce eight convictions.

Moffa learned Wednesday the steep price of that call: a $5,000 fine and two-year prison sentence.

Moffa, 53, of Middlebury, a retired correction officer and former president of AFSCME Local 387, was the first defendant sentenced in the case stemming from a conspiracy by smoke-shop owners to keep their roll-your-own cigarette business exempt from Connecticut’s tax on manufactured cigarettes.

The sentenced imposed by U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton on Moffa indicates a likely hard line for the other defendants, especially since most were deemed by the government to be far more culpable than Moffa. The scheme offered him no financial or political gain. 

“I realize the sentence is one of particular shock, given your career,” Arterton told Moffa, whose lawyer had asked for a sentence of home confinement. “The message is the cost of corruption ought to be too high.”

Moffa’s wife, Suzanne, cried softly as the judge pronounced a sentence that will place the retired correction officer and father of three in a federal correction facility. 

His fateful phone call was to Harry Ray Soucy, a fellow union official who coached the smoke-shop owners to bribe then-House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan with a series of hidden contributions to his congressional campaign.

Moffa, who pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge exactly a year after making that call, also had arranged for his wife to write Donovan a check for $2,500 backed by cash provided by the smoke-shop owners.

It was part of the $27,500 given to Donovan’s congressional campaign through straw donors who hid the source of the funds.

Donovan never was charged, and he denies knowledge of the scheme that involved his campaign manager, Josh Nassi, and finance director, Robert Braddock Jr. Nassi is one of seven defendants to plead guilty. Braddock was convicted in May.

The government concedes that Moffa had no personal stake in the conspiracy, other than a friendship with Paul Rogers, an owner of Smoke House Tobacco. Rogers, according to the government, also is a bookie for whom Moffa occasionally took bets and collected debts.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei said the evidence shows that Moffa, whom the government described in a sentencing memorandum as a “politically astute” former union official, offered support and assistance to the conspirators.

“He knew exactly what they were doing,” Mattei said. 

His lawyer, Richard Meehan, said Moffa’s impulse, however misguided, only was to help a friend.

“He inserted himself into something, he thinks he’s helping out a buddy,” said his lawyer, Richard Meehan.

“Curiously you had no skin in that game, except ego,” Arterton said told Moffa.

But Meehan’s plea for leniency, which was based on Moffa’s acceptance of responsibility, his service as a Marine and correction officer, and his status as a family man with a history of helping friends and relatives at crucial times, was undercut in the judge’s eyes by Moffa’s reaction the day he was confronted by FBI agents.

“He was less than forthright,” Meehan said.

“He lied,” Arterton said.

“He did,” Meehan conceded.

The sentence imposed by Arterton was at the bottom of a guideline range of 24 to 30 months. It was the penalty recommended by the U.S. attorney’s office.

Sentencing had been postponed until after the trial of the only defendant to plead not guilty: Donovan’s campaign finance director, Braddock. It was a trial with collateral damage to politicians who seemed cozy with Soucy — and possibly to the other defendants.

At trial, Arterton heard the government play tapes of conversations by the conspirators, including Nassi and Braddock. She left no doubt Wednesday she was troubled by what she heard.

“You just play those tapes. You hear those conversations,” Arterton said. “You realize that nobody in that group had a whit of respect for the law.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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