Hugh McQuaid photo
Robert Braddock Jr. leaves court with his attorney Frank Riccio II (Hugh McQuaid photo)

NEW HAVEN — Using a series of secretly recorded phone calls and conversations, the federal government began Monday to outline for a jury its case against Robert Braddock Jr., former House Speaker Chris Donovan’s congressional campaign finance director.

Braddock pleaded not guilty last summer to charges related to a conspiracy to hide the source of $27,500 in donations to Donovan’s campaign. The U.S. Attorney’s office alleges that a group of tobacco store owners tried to funnel money to Donovan’s campaign in order to the defeat legislation that would have increased taxes on roll-your-own cigarette shops.

Donovan, who lost his congressional bid in a Democratic primary after the arrest of his two top campaign advisers, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. He was mentioned frequently during Monday’s testimony and could be heard briefly during one of the recorded conversations played for the jury, although nothing he said explicitly pointed to knowledge of an illegal conspiracy.

Even though Donovan was not present in the courtroom, his friend Audrey Honig Geragosian showed up and issued a short statement on his behalf. In that statement, he said it was a sad time for him to be connected to a campaign finance scandal, after having worked throughout his career to improve the state’s campaign finance system.

“The government charged people who worked for me, which hurts just as much today as it when it happened a year ago,” he said.

In the statement, the former House speaker stressed that he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

“Whatever anyone might say or imply, I have not been charged in this case, I am not on trial in this courtroom, and I will not be deterred from continuing to work hard for the causes that are important to the working people of Connecticut,” he said.

Shelley Sadin, Donovan’s attorney, sat next to Honig Geragosian in court and monitored Monday’s proceedings.

In addition to Braddock, seven other men, including Campaign Manager Josh Nassi and tobacco shop owners, were charged last year in the conspiracy. All except Braddock have entered guilty pleas.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher M. Mattei presented the government’s evidence against Braddock for a jury of five men and three women.

Mattei, in his opening arguments, stressed the importance of a transparent election finance system. Braddock is charged with helping to submit a false report to the Federal Elections Commission, the agency charged with maintaining a clean elections system.

“As American citizens we have a right to know something about our candidates. We have a right to know who gives them money and how much,” Mattei said.

Throughout Monday’s proceedings, Mattei played snippets of what he said amounted to hours of recorded conversations collected through wiretaps on personal phones and audio equipment covertly attached to cooperating witnesses. Paul Rogers, a smoke shop owner who has already entered a guilty plea, also testified.

Braddock’s lawyer, Frank Riccio II, did not dispute that tobacco shop owners had conspired to try to funnel money into Donovan’s campaign. However, he argued that the government could not prove that his client was aware of illegal activity.

Riccio said the scheme to donate money through straw contributors on behalf of tobacco shop owners was coordinated by Harry ‘Ray’ Soucy, a Democratic political organizer and former correction officer, who had relationships with some of Donovan’s more trusted advisers, including Nassi.

Riccio singled out Soucy, who eventually became a cooperating witness for the FBI’s investigation. He referred to Soucy several times to the jury as a “creep” and someone who “makes your skin crawl.”

“Mr. Soucy is a creep who said he owned people,” Riccio said. “Everything seen through the lens of Raymond Soucy is diabolical.”

“There may be people you come to separate conclusions on. They’re not on trial. He is,” Riccio said, pointing to Braddock.

The first witness Mattei called, FBI Special Agent William Aldenberg, filled in some of the facts that were previously unknown about the genesis of the investigation. Aldenberg said FBI officials in New York contacted his office in November 2011 regarding one of their cooperating witnesses, Patrick Castagna, a tobacco shop owner who had information about attempts to bribe a Connecticut official.

Much of the government’s evidence Monday was gathered through Castagna, who agreed to have his telephone conversations recorded and wore recording equipment to meetings with many of the other men who have now pleaded guilty to charges in the case.

During his cross examination of Aldenberg, Riccio questioned Castagna’s character.  Aldenberg acknowledged that Castagna had been convicted of felony narcotics charges in Florida about 20 years ago.

“You worked with an acknowledged felon who was a felon 20 years ago?” Riccio asked.

Aldenberg answered, “Sometimes you have to work with criminals to catch criminals.”

Like Donovan’s, Braddock’s voice appeared only briefly in the recorded conversations. Mattei presented several phone calls between Castagna and Rogers as they discussed plans to meet and locate straw donors through whom they could make campaign contributions.

Mattei also played for the jury bits of a five-hour meeting between Rogers, Castagna, Soucy, and others. The conversation was recorded at a roll-your-own cigarette shop and the cigarette rolling machines could be heard rhythmically humming in the background.

In one of the conversations, Rogers sought to allay Castagna’s concerns about the scheme. He vouched for Soucy’s character.

“Ray is a billion, a billion, a billion percent just looking out for our best interest. There’s not a doubt in my mind about that,” Rogers said. Before the investigation was over, Soucy was also cooperating with government.

Rogers was cooperative during his testimony, which is scheduled to begin again Tuesday. Rogers listened and helped fill in the blanks when asked as Mattei played the recordings for the jury. In one phone exchange, he told Castagna, “I don’t like to say too much on the phone.”

Asked by Mattei what he meant, Rogers looked around the courtroom and said, “Well, for basically this reason.”

Wearing recording equipment, Castagna encountered Donovan at a fundraising event in December of 2011, when both Soucy and Rogers were present. During the conversation Donovan indicates that he is aware of the tobacco shop owners’ businesses and makes some small talk. When asked where the shop owners can get some campaign signs to place at their businesses, Donovan answers, “OK, ask Josh” Nassi.

At the same event, Braddock could be heard asking the group whether they had spoken to Donovan yet. According to Rogers, Braddock accepted two checks from Soucy written on behalf of the smoke shop owners.

“I wouldn’t go repeating what I just said, but I think you guys are going to be fine,” Braddock is heard saying on the recording.

Rogers, in the courtroom, said he took Braddock’s comments to mean that “because of the donations, the bill was not going to be passed.” He said his confidence that the bill was dead was “extremely high, at that point.”

Braddock’s trial is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday.