(UPDATED 10 p.m.) NEW HAVEN — After staying out of the public eye for months, Chris Donovan re-emerged Tuesday outside a federal courthouse to reassert his innocence as a jury inside began to mull the fate of a former campaign aide accused of campaign finance corruption.
The former aide, Finance Director Robert Braddock Jr., was convicted by the jury later in the afternoon on all three counts after less than three hours of deliberation.
But Donovan has kept a low profile since losing the Democratic primary election last year in his bid for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District seat. The former state House speaker’s campaign was enveloped in controversy after the federal government charged two members of his campaign, Braddock and Campaign Manager Joshua Nassi, with conspiring to hide the smoke shop owners as the source of $27,500 in donations to the campaign.
On Tuesday, Braddock’s case was handed over to a jury following a week-long trial. But before the jury retired to discuss Braddock’s fate, his lawyer, Frank Riccio II, sought to distinguish his client from Donovan and Connecticut’s political establishment. Court proceedings have been filled with secretly recorded phone conversations and wiretapped meetings involving Braddock and public officials. Among those were Donovan, House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, and House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, each of whom were recorded interacting with Harry “Ray” Soucy, an often-vulgar former correction officer and union official.
Riccio told the jury that the trial seemed so focused on other personalities that, at times, he had to turn to his right and confirm that Braddock was still the defendant.
“This is not a trial about Chris Donovan or Larry Cafero or Joe Aresimowicz or anybody,” Riccio said, calling Braddock an “outsider” in state politics. “. . . This is not a referendum on the Connecticut political establishment.”
But the trial has, despite Riccio’s assertion, exposed some of the inner workings of the state’s political establishment. In that context, Donovan stood outside the federal courthouse on the trial’s final day to read a statement to reporters in an effort to clear his name. He did not take questions.
In his short statement, Donovan said he played no role in the plot outlined by the federal government in which Soucy and a group of tobacco shop owners attempted to bribe him and others in an effort to kill legislation that would impose taxes on their businesses.
“Whatever the jury decides in this case against Rob Braddock, I stand here to confirm what I told you a year ago: my vote was never for sale and I was not involved in Ray Soucy’s conduit contribution scheme,” Donovan said.
During the trial the government offered evidence of Braddock in communication with Soucy and others who have entered guilty pleas in relation to the investigation. Evidence also included a phone call between Donovan and Soucy, as well as a video of the two meeting on the night of last year’s Democratic Party nominating convention. In that video, Donovan tells Soucy he “took care of” him. On Tuesday, Donovan acknowledged the statement “did sound bad.”
“I said, ‘I took care of you.’ When somebody wins, you say, ‘I took care of you.’ When somebody loses, you say, ‘Sorry it didn’t work out.’ That’s just how we talk. Now, the government obviously thought that sounded bad. When I saw the tape, it did sound bad. The way it sounded is not what I meant,” he said.
Donovan characterized his experience as a “cautionary tale” and said the same thing could happen to anyone running for office who needs to raise money. He said his “reputation has taken a beating,” but he would continue to work for cleaner elections.
However, it’s clear from the videotaped conversation at the convention that Donovan was made aware of the donations from Soucy, who can be heard discussing dollar amounts and thanking Donovan for killing the bill. Donovan denies he killed the bill — the legislation never made it out of the Senate. On the video Donovan is heard saying, “I didn’t kill the bill I worked on the legislative side. I did what’s right” as he walks away.
But there is no evidence to suggest that Donovan told his campaign staff to return the money Soucy had mentioned or to cease communicating with Soucy or to cease accepting money from him despite his having informed Donovan that he planned to donate more money on that basis. Moments later as the video continues, Soucy is shown handing more checks to Nassi, who has since pleaded guilty to related charges.
Also unclear is what Donovan did “on the legislative side” with respect to the bill, or if he lobbied members of the Senate not to pass the bill and send it on to the House. A spokesman for the Senate Democrats last year said Donovan never communicated with Sen. President Donald Williams or Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney regarding the bill.
Donovan has not be charged in relation to the investigation, and neither have Cafero or Aresimowicz.
Aresimonwicz’s name came up after he was recorded in a conversation with Soucy on Dec. 23, 2011. During that call, Soucy informs him that Donovan received $10,000 from the smoke shop owners. Then, on April 3, 2012, Aresimowicz informs Soucy by text message that there’s activity on the roll-your-own tobacco bill. Several texts are exchanged and Soucy lets him know another group of checks totaling $5,000 had been set up for Nassi, to which Arisimowicz replies: “Then we will fix it when Chris let’s me know.” Soucy then suggests that he’ll arrange for another $10,000 in donations.
Cafero — the House Minority Leader with aspirations of a gubernatorial run — is captured on video speaking with Soucy and Norwalk smoke shop investor Patrick Castagna. Cafero appears to be aware that they are attempting to make a donation, and rather than accept an envelope inside the Legislative Office Building, Cafero instructs a subordinate to punch out and take a walk with Soucy where the transaction took place.
Cafero has said he thought the money was related to Soucy’s role with the Correction Department, but there’s no discussion of issues related to the Correction Department in the video. There is discussion of their business and Cafero suggests that he might be a “future customer.”
Based on evidence presented during Braddock’s trial, both Donovan and Aresimowicz appear to have become aware of what were likely straw donations and failed to stop them or notify authorities. Cafero appears to have ignored suspicious circumstances in accepting donations that were converted from cash to checks, and then also failed to notify authorities.
In his final appeal to the jury, Riccio tried put some distance between Braddock and Donovan’s reputation. He said people want to see the “political establishment” held accountable for corruption, but he suggested that Braddock was unaware of the violations.
Riccio said the federal government’s case against Braddock was built on a “cracked foundation” made up of the testimony of admitted co-conspirators and felons. He pointed to Soucy, to whom he has referred to as “diabolical,” and Paul Rogers, a smoke shop owner who also has pleaded guilty.
“The government is trying to sell you a house. The foundation of this house is not as sound as it seems to be,” he told the jury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover said the government’s case was “absolutely solid.” He said in most cases, the government wasn’t asking the jury to believe any testimony from Soucy or Rogers that was not corroborated by other witnesses.
And while Riccio suggested some of Braddock’s interactions with Soucy were colored by Braddock’s desire to get away from the former correction officer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei pointed to recordings in which the two men seemed to be interacting comfortably. Mattei displayed a video captured secretly by Soucy in which Braddock tells Soucy he can always make time for him.
“‘I always have time for Mr. Soucy?’ Think about that when attorney Riccio comes up here later and tells you how desperately [Braddock] wanted to get rid of Mr. Soucy. How Soucy made [Braddock’s] skin crawl,” Mattei said.
In his closing arguments, Mattei quickly recapped the government’s case, pointing to recordings played earlier in the trial and stressing instances where Braddock was present. As he had at the beginning of the trial, he said the federal campaign finance laws exist for a reason.
“In order to have fair, clean, transparent election, you can’t have some invisible hand directing money to the candidate,” Mattei said, adding that the government had presented “evidence of an all out effort by Mr. Braddock and others to do just that.”
Mattei said in the process of conspiring to funnel false donations to the Donovan campaign, Braddock and others had deprived Connecticut residents of the right to know who was funding their political candidates.
“It didn’t matter to them. But it matters,” Mattei said.
Braddock, 34, was found guilty of conspiring to make false statements to the Federal Elections Commission, accepting more than $10,000 in federal campaign contributions made by persons in the names of others, and causing false reports to be filed with the FEC.
The charges carry a maximum of 12 years in prison and each count carries a $250,000 fine. Braddock is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 13.
Riccio said he was disappointed by the verdict and surprised by the length of the jury’s deliberation. He said his options going forward include an appeal and filing post-trial motions.
He maintained that it was “almost certain” that Braddock was convicted based on his association with others.