John Bernardo, a former West Haven city employee, was sentenced to 13 months in prison for his role in a fraud scheme that resulted in more than $1.2 million being embezzled. Andrew Brown / CT MIrror

John Bernardo, a former West Haven employee, was sentenced to 13 months in prison for participating in a scheme to steal federal relief funds that were meant to help the city and its roughly 55,000 residents weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bernardo was the first defendant to be sentenced in court as part of a federal probe, which uncovered more than $1.2 million that was embezzled through a network of bogus companies and a stream of fake invoices that were paid by the city’s finance department.

Three other defendants, including former state Democratic lawmaker Michael DiMassa and his wife Lauren DiMassa, will also be sentenced in the coming days or weeks as part of the high-profile fraud case.

Bernardo, who also previously served as firefighter in New Haven, pleaded guilty to a federal conspiracy charge in June 2022 and admitted to working with DiMassa to create a shell company that billed the city more than $636,000 for supplies and services that were never delivered.

During the sentencing hearing on Wednesday, however, Bernardo and his attorney sought to downplay his overall involvement in that fraud.

“I apologize to the citizens of West Haven,” Bernardo said before his sentence was handed down. “It was bad judgment.”

Gregory Cerritelli, Bernardo’s defense attorney, asked U.S. District Judge Omar Williams for leniency by arguing Bernardo was a minor player in the overall fraud scheme.

In an attempt to support his case, Cerritelli pointed out that Bernardo received a smaller percentage of the overall funds that were stolen from the city. And he argued that the fraud would not have been possible without DiMassa, who admitted to signing the fraudulent invoices and walking them out of city hall.

“I think you need to examine his role in relation to others,” Cerritelli said.

Cerritelli also highlighted Bernardo’s lack of a criminal record and his past employment as a firefighter and public employee. He said those years of service meant that Bernardo had built up a “significant deposit in the bank of good will.”

“He has an entire life devoted to helping others,” Cerritelli said.

The federal prosecutors pushed back on several of the representations that Bernardo and his attorney sought to make at the hearing, however.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Miller argued that Bernardo could not be considered a minor player in the fraud scheme. He pointed to several pieces of evidence that suggested Bernardo was more aware of the scheme than he was letting on.

Compass Investment Group, one of the shell companies that was set up to steal the federal funds, was formed using Bernardo’s home address as its place of business. Bernardo had access to that company’s bank account. And bank records show that Bernardo received roughly $48,000 disguised as payroll and retirement benefits.

“He’s not just a pawn in this scheme,” Miller said.

The federal prosecutors also reminded the judge that Bernardo received several thousand dollars in kickbacks as part of related scheme that was orchestrated by DiMassa and John Trasacco, another defendant who was convicted at trial.

Those kickbacks were included in the more than $58,000 in restitution that Bernardo was ordered to pay as part of his sentencing. Connecticut Attorney General William Tong has also filed a separate civil case against Bernardo seeking to reduce or revoke his public employee pension.

Before handing down the final sentence, Williams recognized Bernardo’s public service, calling him as a “courageous firefighter” who had a “big heart.”

But Williams said that service record could not diminish the financial damage that Bernardo helped to inflict on taxpayers in West Haven.

“This was a significant theft of government funds,” Williams said, noting that the money Bernardo helped to steal was intended to assist residents in West Haven during a deadly pandemic.

“You chose to steal a large amount of money that was meant for those in need,” he said.

That theft was made, Williams added, “not out of need, but out of greed.” Many people in West Haven, Williams pointed out, earn far less than $58,000 annually through their jobs.

Bernardo was allowed to remain out on bond for the next two months. He was ordered to voluntarily report to federal prison on May 22.

Andrew joined CT Mirror as an investigative reporter in July 2021. Prior to moving to Connecticut, Andrew was a reporter at newspapers in North Dakota, West Virginia and most recently South Carolina. He’s covered business, utilities, environmental issues, the opioid crisis, local government and two state legislatures. Do you have a story tip? Reach Andrew at 843-592-9958