NEW HAVEN — The political fallout of the federal government’s case against Chris Donovan’s former campaign finance director extended beyond Democrats on Tuesday when a federal witness described an attempt to bribe a top Republican lawmaker in the House.
Robert Braddock Jr.’s trial continued Tuesday in a New Haven courthouse. Braddock, who served as finance director for Donovan’s failed congressional campaign last year, is facing federal 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 lost his congressional bid during the Democratic primary phase of last year’s election after his campaign was derailed by the arrests of Braddock and Josh Nassi, his former campaign manager. Nassi and six other men, including tobacco shop owners, have already entered guilty pleas in the case. Throughout the past year Donovan has maintained his innocence and issued a statement Monday stressing that he has not been accused of wrongdoing.
But Donovan wasn’t the only state House official whose name was invoked Tuesday as the court heard testimony from Paul Rogers, a former tobacco shop owner who is among those who already have pleaded guilty to felony campaign corruption charges.
Rogers detailed a conspiracy in which he and other tobacco shop owners were coached by Harry ‘Ray’ Soucy on influencing the legislative process. The goal was to bribe several lawmakers in an effort to kill the bill imposing new taxes on roll-your-own cigarette shops, he said.
Soucy, a former correction officer and union official, often portrayed himself a politically savvy and touted his influence over state lawmakers, Rogers said.
Rogers said that at one point last year, he and Soucy, along with another tobacco store owner named Patrick Castagna who had been cooperating with the FBI, met with House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero at his office in the state Capitol.
Responding to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher M. Mattei, Rogers said that Soucy had suggested donating to Cafero a few weeks earlier in an effort to get both Republicans and Democrats “on the same page” and opposed to the bill concerning the roll-your-own cigarette shops. Rogers said Soucy came to the meeting with $5,000 in cash. He said they met with Cafero for around 25 minutes.
“We sat down, myself, Ray [Soucy] and Pat [Castagna] and explained our dilemma . . . explained how we had sat down with Donovan already, you know just asking him to help us out,” Rogers said.
Mattei asked what Cafero’s position was regarding the meeting. Rogers began to answer the questions saying, “He said his position was—” but Braddock’s lawyer objected to Mattei’s question and the prosecutor moved on.
After the meeting, Rogers said Soucy handed John Healey, Cafero’s aide, an envelope containing the $5,000. But Healey returned the envelope at a later meeting, saying they did not accept cash, Rogers said. Rogers said they agreed to donate the money through checks.
Asked about the meeting outside his Capitol office on Tuesday, Cafero said he had met with Soucy, whom he knew to be a correction officer. Cafero said that when the meeting was scheduled he had assumed it was about the Department of Correction.
He said Soucy brought up the issue of tobacco shops and spoke about how he wanted to open one when he retired, but Cafero maintains he had no idea who the other two men were with Soucy at the meeting.
After the meeting, Cafero said Soucy indicated he would like to make a donation, so Cafero instructed John Healey, his staffer, to meet with Soucy at a restaurant. The two met and Soucy handed Healey an envelope. Cafero said Healey didn’t know what was in the envelope until he got back to his desk and opened it.
At that point Healey called Cafero at his law office and told him there was cash in the envelope. Cafero instructed Healey to give it back and inform them about how to properly make out donations to the PACs.
“We can’t take cash,” Cafero said Tuesday.
He recalled that about two weeks later the checks arrived.
Cafero said he never made the connection that the donation was on behalf of the smoke shop owners who wanted to defeat the roll-your-own bill.
“Dummy me, I never even connected the two. I thought this was a donation from the Department of Corrections,” Cafero said.
Last year, Cafero was one of a dozen lawmakers interviewed by the FBI. He said he learned during the interview that straw donors delivered five $1,000 checks to three House Republican PACs.
He said he was unaware of the connection until he was informed of it by the FBI. He immediately instructed his staff to return the donations even though the FBI instructed him otherwise.
“The feds didn’t want me to do it,” Cafero said. “Are you kidding me? I’m not keeping this money.”
In the courtroom Tuesday, Rogers indicated it was his understanding that Soucy was bribing Cafero when they met.
Answering questions from defense attorney Frank Riccio II, Rogers said that Soucy had claimed to “own” Rep. Jeffrey Berger, D-Waterbury, and Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. When Riccio asked whether Soucy believed he “owned” Cafero, Rogers said he didn’t think that was how Soucy had phrased it.
“You testified that you were present when Mr. Soucy gave a bribe to Mr. Cafero,” Riccio said.
“Yes,” Rogers answered.
During one of the phone conversations recorded by the FBI and played in court by Mattei, Soucy was heard telling Rogers about the legislative process and the fate of the tobacco store bill. Soucy claimed the bill is on the “watch list for the union” and said there would be “about a thousand union people up there” the following week talking against the bill.
Soucy claimed that Aresimowicz, whom he referred to by his nickname “A-to-Z,” had been giving him the “inside scoop.” Soucy told Rogers they may need to donate more money to Cafero.
Rogers asks whether he should get in touch with Berger. Soucy agreed and instructed Rogers to tell him “bill is no good.” Soucy told him he can’t have contact with Berger because “he and A-to-Z are trying for the same position.”
At the end of last session, Donovan was expected to retire and House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey was expected to take over the role of speaker. Both Aresimowicz and Berger were in the running to replace Sharkey as majority leader. Aresimowicz eventually won.
During the recorded call, Rogers said he thought Berger was “smart enough to realize he doesn’t have a shot.” Soucy says Berger was still trying.
Both Berger and Aresimowicz voted to increase fees on tobacco store owners when the bill was in committee.
Throughout Tuesday’s court hearing, Riccio sought to call into question the integrity of testimony given by both Rogers and Soucy, who is expected to testify later in the trial.
At one point Riccio, who on Monday told the jury that Soucy was “a creep,” asked Rogers whether Soucy was known to say things “with a dirty, slimy way about him?” Rogers appeared confused by the question.
Riccio affected a raspy, villainous-sounding voice in an apparent imitation of Soucy. “Hey, Mr. Rogers, that’s a nice chandelier there isn’t it?” he said, pointing to the ceiling. Rogers reluctantly agreed with Riccio’s assertion that Soucy sometimes sounded “sketchy.”
Several times during Tuesday’s hearing, Riccio asked Rogers whether he believed himself to be an “honest man.” Rogers initially answered yes, but began to hesitate as Riccio recounted his participation in the conspiracy to stop the roll-your-own cigarette bill. Rogers also admitted to running a large illegal gambling operation in addition to tobacco shops.
“So when was the moment you went from being a dishonest man to an honest man? When did that magical moment happen?” Riccio asked Rogers. “It was when you got arrested wasn’t it?”
Rogers agreed that it was.
Christine Stuart contributed to this report from the state Capitol in Hartford.