Hugh McQuaid Photo
William Bloss, attorney for Josh Nassi (Hugh McQuaid Photo)

Josh Nassi, a lawyer who worked for former House Speaker Chris Donovan, pleaded guilty to a campaign corruption charge Friday in New Haven. The plea prompted his former boss to release a two-sentence statement expressing his disappointment.

Donovan has maintained that he had no knowledge of illegal activities. However, the high-profile arrests of Nassi and another campaign staffer struck a critical blow to his campaign and in August he lost the Democratic primary to Elizabeth Esty, who went on to win the seat in Congress.

CTNJ file photo
Former House Speaker Chris Donovan (CTNJ file photo)

“I am deeply saddened at today’s events in federal court,” Donovan said Friday. “I trusted Josh Nassi and he disappointed not only me, but also the people he served as one of my advisers.”

Nassi, 34, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to make a false statement to the Federal Elections Commission. The charge is a felony that could carry as much as a five-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine. Judge Janet Bond Arterton said the conviction could also have collateral implications affecting Nassi’s status as a lawyer.

Nassi worked as an adviser for Donovan for years before leaving his state Capitol job to serve as the campaign manager for the former speaker’s unsuccessful congressional bid.

It was in his capacity as campaign manager that Nassi became involved with a conspiracy to hide the sources of campaign donations. Owners of roll-your-own tobacco shops funded the donations and gave the money to “straw donors” — individuals not tied to the industry — to write the checks to the campaign. They sought to defeat legislation that would have imposed new taxes and fees on their shops.

Nassi was one of eight people the FBI charged with involvement in the conspiracy. Robert Braddock Jr. , Donovan’s former campaign finance director, was also charged.

According to federal indictments, Braddock, Nassi, and Ray Soucy, a former corrections officer and union official, conspired to funnel almost $30,000 into the Donovan campaign on behalf of tobacco shop owners, promising to kill a bill impacting roll-your-own cigarette operations.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei said Nassi, Braddock, and Soucy arranged for the campaign contributions to be donated using the names of “straw donors,” so that it would not appear as if tobacco shop owners were trying to buy influence with Donovan.

Christine Stuart file photo
Josh Nassi in the speaker’s caucus room in 2010 (Christine Stuart file photo)

Nassi was quiet during the court proceedings Friday, but when asked by the judge he admitted his part in the donation scheme.

“I knew that there were contributions given to the campaign that were in the name of others. I allowed those contributions to be accepted by the campaign, knowing they would be submitted to the FEC,” he said.

William Bloss, Nassi’s attorney, said his client has been prepared to enter a guilty plea for some time, but wanted to ensure that there would be no further charges against him. Bloss said that assurance was part of the agreement Nassi accepted Friday.

“He was prepared to accept responsibility for this offense last July. He accepts he made a mistake and wants to try to make it right,” he said.

Bloss said it has been a “very difficult year” for Nassi, and that he has had no contact with the former Speaker of the House. Nassi remains free on a $100,000 bond, secured with his mother’s Fairfield house. He is scheduled to appear before a judge again on July 16 for a sentencing hearing. Bloss said he believed Nassi’s record and lack of criminal history weigh in his favor.

“I think we are going to have a very compelling presentation for Judge Arterton,” he said.

Of the eight people charged in the conspiracy, most have now pleaded guilty. Only Braddock, and George Tirado, a Waterbury police officer and co-owner of Smoke House Tobacco, have maintained not guilty pleas. Court documents show jury selection is expected to begin May 7 and the presentation of evidence will begin on May 13.

Following guilty pleas Friday from Nassi and Ben Hogan, another co-conspirator and employee of Smoke House Tobacco, the U.S. Justice Department issued a statement saying defrauding federal elections is a serious crime.

“Today’s guilty pleas serve as a reminder that there are consequences for those who undermine the integrity of the legislative process by engaging in a concealed pay-to-play system,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Mertz said.