The corruption trial of a top aide to former state House Speaker Christopher Donovan opened in federal court Monday with the jury listening to secretly made recordings of businessmen and political operatives scheming about how to pay bribes to kill special tax legislation.
The scratchy recordings and the opening statements by lawyers in the trial of former campaign finance director Robert Braddock Jr. amounted to a replay of the scandal last year that transformed Donovan's campaign from front-runner to political train wreck in the race for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District.
Braddock, along with seven political operatives and tobacco retailers, are accused of conspiring to violate campaign finance laws by disguising the source of about $30,000 in contributions the businessmen made to the Donovan campaign.
There was testimony and other evidence presented Monday that the businessmen hoped the campaign money would ensure Donovan's support in defeating the tax bill.
Of the eight, only Braddock is fighting his indictment. The others have struck deals with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty. Some are expected to testify against Braddock.
Braddock is charged with conspiracy and violating campaign finance laws by accepting what are known as conduit contributions. But the trial will turn on what the government has said motivated the alleged deception – the efforts in 2011 and 2012 by what is known as the roll-your-own tobacco industry to derail tax legislation that ultimately would eliminate their profitability.
The political scandal created by the fundraising conspiracy is widely viewed as untracking Donovan's campaign for Congress. But he has consistently denied any knowledge of, or involvement in, improper fundraising or a conspiracy to kill the tax bill, which passed the legislature in June 2012.
In his opening statement, defense lawyer Frank Riccio described Braddock as becoming enmeshed in the bribery scandal through something like political naivete.
Braddock was a political outsider who landed a top spot on the Donovan campaign with no experience or political friendships in Connecticut, he said. Riccio told the jury that Braddock was unaware of the conspiracy to bribe Donovan.
"At the end of the day, this case boils down to something quite simple," Riccio said. "What did Robert Braddock know? What did he know about these campaign contributions? Just because he was bestowed a title of campaign finance director by Chris Donovan doesn't mean he knows any more or any less."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei told the jurors in his opening that they would hear that Braddock knew he was accepting political money that the roll-your-own tobacco interests had disguised as coming from someone else.
Paul Rogers, a part owner of two roll-your-own businesses in Waterbury and a key figure in the conspiracy, pleaded guilty previously and testified for the government Monday that Braddock was told at one of their first meetings, in November 2011, that the businesses were writing checks to the campaign through conduit donors.
The early meeting, as were many others, was arranged by Harry Raymond Soucy, a state labor activist and Donovan supporter. It was Soucy, according to the tapes and other evidence, who suggested to the tobacco retailers that they could persuade Donovan to kill the tax bill by contributing to his campaign. Soucy also warned the businessmen against signing their own checks to avoid the appearance that they might be exerting influence on the campaign.
The meeting took place outside a Donovan campaign event in Waterbury in late 2011. Rogers said Soucy, who is known as Ray, introduced him and a partner to Braddock.
"Ray referred to us as 'the guys from the smokehouse … this is where the money came from, even though their name is not on the check,' " Rogers testified.
In his opening remarks to jurors, Riccio hinted that the defense may try to shift responsibility for the bribe and campaign violation conspiracy to Soucy.
"Mr. Soucy is a creep who claims he owns people," Riccio said. "The evidence shows he did bribe people. He is a creep motivated by greed and power. Everything seen through the lens of Harry Soucy is diabolical. He is the kind of person that when you see him, you walk the other way. He makes your skin crawl."
On the recordings played in court Monday, Donovan is referred to continually by Soucy and Rogers as the politician best able to keep the General Assembly from considering tax legislation.
"Better than Malloy," Rogers said on a recording, a reference to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
Donovan's voice was captured on only one recording played Monday. During a December 2011 fundraiser at a Waterbury hotel, he met with Rogers and engaged in a minute or so of small talk about one of Roger's two stores in Waterbury.
The roll-your-own tobacco businesses sell tobacco and other materials to smokers and allow them to pay to use machines to roll their own cigarettes.
Mattei said the stores were using a loophole in state tax law to sell a carton of cigarettes for about half the price, or $30 cheaper than traditional retailers could sell a carton of manufactured cigarettes.
Mattei said the conspiracy grew out of efforts by the state tax department to close the loophole, first unsuccessfully in court and later with tax legislation.
FBI agent William Aldenberg, the government's first witness Monday, testified that the FBI's New York office learned of the bribery conspiracy from an informant named Partrick Castagna. Castagna reported that roll-your-own shop owners were trying to bribe a Connecticut politician, Aldenberg said. He said Castagna has a narcotics conviction in Florida and has been arrested for a stock market manipulation in New York and a larceny in Connecticut.Copyright © 2015, CT Now