New Haven – Joshua Nassi, once the top legislative and campaign aide to House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, was sentenced Thursday to 28 months in prison for conspiring to block tobacco tax legislation in return for $27,500 in contributions to his boss’s doomed congressional campaign.

Nassi, 35, a lawyer who worked as a community activist and an ACLU volunteer as he pursued a career in politics and public policy, eventually holding one of the most powerful staff jobs at the General Assembly, struggled for composure as he apologized for undermining the institution he served.

“I hope that people can forgive me, that they understand government is better than my actions,” Nassi said.

Nassi was the fifth and most prominent conspirator sentenced to prison by U.S. District Judge Janet B. Arterton, who agreed with the government’s argument that a significant prison sentence was necessary as a deterrent to others who will wrestle with the corrosive effect of money in politics.

“In this context, the Government submits that there is an urgent need for the Court’s sentence to announce clearly to those in positions of trust within campaigns and government that this type of behavior is not only illegal, but intolerable,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei told Arterton in his sentencing memorandum.

Arterton, who expressed frustration at the state’s recent run of political corruption cases, agreed. Her sentence was near the top of the 24-to-30-month sentencing range that was agreed to by the U.S. attorney’s office, but was not binding on the judge.

The judge also imposed a $6,000 fine.

Three others await sentencing in the conspiracy that rocked Connecticut politics and mortally wounded the congressional campaign of Donovan, who says he was unaware of a pay-to-play scheme intended to keep the lucrative roll-your-own cigarette business free of the state’s steep tobacco taxes.

Smoke-shop owners funneled the money to the Donovan campaign using straw donors. The conspirators’ conversations were captured on audio and video recordings, first by an FBI informant and later by one of participants who turned cooperator, Harry Ray Soucy.

“When I go back and listen to the recordings, I read the reports. I was constantly asking myself, ‘What was I thinking?’ ” Nassi said.

Donovan, whose state legislative term expired in January five months after he lost a Democratic primary for the congressional nomination, was not prosecuted, though the government described him and others at the Capitol as complicit in trying stop the tobacco legislation.

Prosecutors called Nassi a lynchpin of the conspiracy, the connection between the smoke-shop owners, a corrupt, politically connected union official who assisted them and Donovan, the favorite in the spring of 2012 to cap a 20-year legislative career by winning the Democratic nomination for the open 5th Congressional District seat.

Soucy, a union official who represented correction officers at the Capitol, advised the smoke-shop owners on how to make secret, illegal contributions to Donovan’s campaign. In his taped conversations with Nassi, it was clear that Soucy wanted to trade the cash for Donovan’s support on the tobacco issue.

“In short, without Mr. Nassi’s willingness to trade access, influence and official action for campaign contributions, this conspiracy would have had no reason to exist,” Mattei told Arterton.

Arterton noted that Nassi, unlike some other defendants in the case, quickly acknowledged his actions when confronted by the FBI. She said his remorse is “palpable.”

“He has definitely not minimized or equivocated about his conduct. He didn’t invent the scheme. But he was the key. He may have been the latecomer, but he was the key,” Arterton said, calling him “the man who should have pulled the plug.”

Nassi, described by his lawyer, William M. Bloss, as an indifferent student who found a passion for politics and public policy, was Donovan’s chief of staff at the General Assembly until he resigned to manage the congressional campaign. 

His sentence fell short of the 38 months imposed on Robert Braddock Jr., who was Donovan’s campaign finance director. Braddock denied any wrongdoing and was the only conspirator convicted at trial. Without the plea, Nassi would have faced a guideline range of between 30 and 37 months in prison.

Bloss suggested that the conspirators were spared from more serious charges only because there was no conclusive evidence that the illegal contributions affected legislative action. The tobacco bill was a Senate measure that never reached the House, where Donovan controlled which bills came up for a vote.

It later passed in special session, a reaction to a court decision that said the roll-your-own business was not subject to the same taxes as manufactured cigarettes. Without its tax advantage, the roll-your-own business has disappeared from Connecticut.

“Perhaps this is why Nassi was not charged with more serious offenses, and why no one else has been charged,” Bloss wrote. He asked for leniency on the basis of Nassi’s “extreme remorse,” which the prosecution says “appears genuine.”

Bloss did not minimize the damage inflicted on the political process by the conspiracy, nor did he suggest the Nassi be spared incarceration.

 “Joshua Nassi concedes, as he must, that he has no one but himself to blame for the conduct that causes him to be before the Court. His conduct was wrong, it was inexcusable, and it was (in very large part) inexplicable given his years of trusted and trustworthy public and community service,” Bloss told Arterton in the memo.

Nassi had been an intern for the American Civil Liberties Union and worked for the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. Andrew Schneider and Joseph Grabarz, the current and former directors of the ACLU, wrote Arterton on Nassi’s behalf, as did Phil Sherwood, a former New Britain council member and CCAG colleague, and former Rep. Joseph Taborsak of Danbury.

No current member of the legislature wrote a letter.

Arterton also heard from Alessandra Russo, a fashion designer who has been dating Nassi for a year and became his financee weeks ago. By letter and again and court, Russo described him revealing the criminal case against him on their second date. 

“What I appreciated the most was Josh’s honesty and complete transparency with me from the very beginning,” she wrote.

Nassi’s mother, Madeline Schuster, and his younger brother, David, also addressed the judge. Schuster exhaled deeply she stepped through the gate separating the court from spectators. Nassi, who moved from Fairfield after his arrest to his father’s home in New York, bowed his head and seemed to struggle for composure as his mother walked by.

Reading from notes, she told Arterton that she raised her sons to take responsibiity for their actions. She told Arterton her son erred deeply, but has learned much. 

“I believe he can be an asset for society,” she said. “I plead with the court not to further suppress this gift with a  lengty incarceration.”

Bloss did not dispute that the damage the conspiracy inflicted on the General Assembly and on the careers of others who played a role in monitoring the tobacco legislation for Nassi, without being aware of the illegal scheme,

“These impacts were simply unimaginable to him in early 2012, but he should have been more aware of the inevitable impact of the offense, whether or not it was discovered by authorities. Trust in government is vital to the functioning of our state,” Bloss wrote. “It is been repeatedly corroded by many recent publicized offenses, not least of which were the recent incarceration of a governor, a state senator, and mayors of two of our largest cities. And now this.”

Arterton praised how Bloss succinctly summarized the issues raised by the corruption case, how Nassi’s actions were out of character, and how the conspiracy once again undermined Connecticut’s faith in its politics. Her job, she said, was take the measure of the man and his crime.

“Your sentencing memorandum deserves a Pulitzer nomination,” Arterton said. “But it doesn’t make it an easier sentencing.”

Explore a timeline of other convictions in the Donovan case below.

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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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