File photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register
David Moffa leaves the court with his attorney last July (File photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register)

NEW HAVEN — A federal court judge handed down a two-year prison sentence Wednesday to the first of eight men convicted of campaign finance corruption involving former House Speaker Chris Donovan’s failed congressional campaign.

Judge Janet Bond Arterton sentenced David Moffa to 24 months in prison, one year of supervised release, and a $5,000 fine.

Moffa, 53, was one of seven who pleaded guilty in the case and was the first of the group to be sentenced on felony charges in relation to illegal donations made to Donovan’s campaign on behalf of tobacco shop owners. The shop owners sought to use the House Speaker’s influence to kill legislation harmful to their businesses.

Moffa is a former state corrections officer and union official. His lawyer Richard Meehan, Jr., had sought a sentence lighter than federal guidelines recommend, in part due to Moffa’s career and mostly-clean criminal record.

Despite Meehan’s attempts to paint Moffa as a “an individual with a large heart,” Arterton declined to deviate from the federal sentencing recommendations.

“I realize this sentence is one of particular shock given your career, but the message is that the cost of corruption ought to be too high,” she said.

Although Donovan was never charged in the case, he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination in the 2012 5th Congressional District race after two of his staffers were part of the group arrested on corruption charges.

Josh Nassi, Donovan’s former aide and campaign manager, also has pleaded guilty to charges in addition to several tobacco shop owners and investors. Another Donovan staffer, Robert Braddock Jr., pleaded not guilty but was convicted of conspiracy crimes by a jury in May.

Although prosecutors have noted that Moffa was not the most culpable member of the conspiracy, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei argued Wednesday that Moffa was aware of the conspiracy and he engaged in it.

Moffa is notable in that he was the one to solicit the involvement of Harry “Ray” Soucy in the conspiracy. Soucy, another ex-correction officer and union official, served as the primary architect of the plot to bribe lawmakers, including Donovan.

Soucy eventually became a government informant after he was confronted by federal law enforcement officers. He agreed to wear a wire and conduct secretly-recorded phone conversations on the government’s behalf. As a result, the evidence presented at Braddock’s trial often included Soucy’s brash and vulgar statements.

As he appealed to the judge, Meehan acknowledged that Moffa had brought Soucy into the scheme.

“There’s no question that Dave Moffa was a precipitating factor because he introduced Soucy to this case,” Meehan said. “. . . What Dave Moffa didn’t have judge, was any stake in the outcome . . . He wouldn’t have gotten a nickel out of this regardless of which way the legislation had gone.”

Meehan argued that Moffa ended up involved in the case out of an “inflated sense of braggadocio.” While visiting a smoke shop and hearing a conversation about the possibility of legislation imposing new fees on the businesses, Meehan said Moffa offered to get Soucy involved out of a desire to appear politically connected.

The judge agreed that Moffa did not appear to have any “skin in the game,” but said it was “startling” that a man who worked a career in the correction system did not try to offer legitimate advice instead of helping to set up an illegal scheme.

“You knew that Soucy would get it done in that illegitimate way,” she said.

Moffa’s lawyer also pointed out that his client was the first of the eight men to begin cooperating with the authorities. He said Moffa accepted responsibility for his illegal actions. Mattei agreed that Moffa began to cooperate, but said that even after Moffa started talking to federal agents, he was not always candid.

“From our perspective there’s nothing extraordinary about that. In fact there are some aspects of his behavior that suggest that his acceptance was nothing more than was necessary to accept,” he said.

Arterton agreed, saying she did not see a connection between Moffa’s early cooperation and the eventual guilty pleas entered by all but one of the other conspirators. She seemed to believe those pleas had more to do with extensive audio recordings collected by the government.

“This trial was not so much about cooperation as it was those tapes. Just play those tapes, and you realize that nobody in this whole group has a whit of respect for the law,” she said.

Moffa, when he addressed the court, apologized to his wife and family for the grief and embarrassment he put them through. His wife, who was sitting behind him, began to cry when Arterton handed down the sentence.

“I know I’ve let them down by getting involved with something I should have never gotten involved with,” Moffa said.

Arterton credited Moffa, a former Marine, with serving his country, working as a correction officer, and advocating for his colleagues as a union official. She said correction workers benefitted from his legitimate attempts to influence the political system.

“That’s the process that allows politics to work. Politics is not a bad word. Politics is this process of accommodating this interest and that interest” and balancing resources, she said.

Arterton said Moffa and the other conspirators corrupted that process by trying to circumvent the mechanism that keeps it open and visible.

“The relationship of money to influence is something that has to be carefully guarded,” she said.

According to court documents, Moffa helped a group of smoke shop owners devise a plan to prevent legislation that would have been harmful to their roll-your-own cigarette operations.

The FBI investigation revealed that on Nov. 2, 2011, Moffa met with two tobacco shop owners, including Paul Rogers, at Smoke House Tobacco in Waterbury. At that meeting Moffa advised the other attendees that Soucy could help them prevent the legislation. Moffa phoned Soucy, who showed up to join the meeting.

On Nov. 30, 2011, Moffa met with Soucy, Rogers, and another owner at Smoke House Tobacco. At that meeting Moffa suggested the owners make a $5,000 contribution to Donovan’s congressional campaign at a fundraising event on Dec. 8, 2011. Moffa volunteered to be the straw donor and help them conceal the source of the contribution.

“You give me the money, I’ll give you a check,” Moffa told the smoke shop owners on that date.

On Dec. 8, 2011, Rogers and another smoke shop owner gave Moffa $2,500 and Moffa then wrote a check for $2,500 in his wife’s name to “Donovan for Congress.” Following the event, Moffa met the group for dinner.

On June 1, 2012, when he was confronted about the $2,500 by the FBI, Moffa “falsely stated that he did not receive any cash in exchange for writing the check to the Donovan for Congress campaign.”

On Nov. 2, 2012, a year to the day after that first meeting, Moffa pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to make false statements to the Federal Election Commission and impeding the commission’s enforcement of federal campaign finance laws.

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