OP-ED | Failing The Smell Test In Hartford
(UPDATED Sept. 29) Connecticut is a land of paradoxes. On the one hand, while some are trying to make secrecy the norm again, we still have some of the strongest freedom-of-information and open-government laws in the country. On the other hand, our state is sometimes run like a third-world country, replete with enough graft and chicanery to make Boss Tweed blush.
The corruption piece has reared its ugly head in recent months with the brief trial and conviction of Robert Braddock Jr., the finance director of the unsuccessful 2012 congressional campaign of then-Speaker of the House Chris Donovan.
Braddock was one of eight people implicated in a pay-to-play scheme in which straw donors gave money to Donovan’s congressional campaign in exchange for killing legislation that would have imposed new taxes on the state’s roll-your-own cigarette industry. The other seven defendants pleaded guilty.
Braddock contested the charges but his lawyer failed to offer any evidence or put any witnesses on the stand for the week-long trial. The jury only needed three hours to convict him and on Aug. 27 the judge sentenced him to 38 months.
Donovan’s campaign manager, Josh Nassi, was among those who pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 28 months in prison on Sept. 19.
During the Braddock jury’s deliberations, Donovan, the 20-year legislator and former union activist, maintained his innocence. He hasn’t been charged with any crime. But his own words, uttered to a key player as the scandal unfolded, suggest otherwise. In Nassi’s sentencing memorandum filed last week, federal prosecutors went as far as they have gone thus far in public, highlighting comments from Donovan in two recorded conversations as evidence that the Speaker knew about the scheme.
In the sentencing memorandum, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Mattei cites a recorded phone call in which Donovan spoke with Harry “Ray” Soucy — the former correction officer who orchestrated the conspiracy on behalf of the smoke shop owners:
“It is undisputed that, on May 2, 2012, Mr. Donovan contacted Mr. Soucy at Mr. Nassi’s request,” Mattei wrote. “The recording of that call makes plain that Mr. Donovan understood from Mr. Nassi that Mr. Soucy was seeking to secure his commitment to defeat the RYO Legislation in exchange for campaign contributions.”
Later, at the 2012 Democratic convention that nominated him to run for Congress, Donovan was approached by Soucy and was recorded saying, “I took care of you, didn’t I?” Donovan’s explanation that such an exchange passes for a standard greeting to a constituent is laughable — and he knows it.
Mattei further reiterated much of the above evidence in his memorandum, concluding that it’s clear that Donovan understood the scheme to trade campaign contributions for legislative influence.
But the tentacles of the scandal spread wide and appear to have ensnared two other powerful lawmakers in Hartford. Republican Rep. Larry Cafero, the House minority leader, also was on the receiving end of Soucy’s cash. At the Braddock trial, Soucy testified that he put $5,000 in cash in Cafero’s office refrigerator — a charge Cafero hotly denied.
But Cafero’s denial was quickly shown to be something less than truthful when prosecutors introduced video footage at the trial the following day showing a conversation between Cafero and Soucy in Cafero’s office.
In the video, it’s clear that Cafero is made aware of what their smoke shop business is about and suggests he may soon be a customer. Soucy then attempts to hand Cafero a donation, saying “So I don’t have to do a postage.” That part of the conversation appears to take place close to the office refrigerator, as Soucy asks whether Cafero has “anything good cold to drink in there?”
The video is not definitive as to whether Soucy physically placed anything in the refrigerator, and Cafero has denied that Soucy actually did so.
Regardless, the video shows Cafero then delegating the transaction to a subordinate, instructing him to go across the street with Soucy. In his public statement, Cafero later says the subordinate informed him that Soucy gave him cash, and that he instructed the subordinate to return the cash and to provide instructions on how to appropriately make donations to a PAC.
But Cafero claims ignorance about the arrival a few weeks later of five illegal conduit checks for $1,000 apiece, including a check from Soucy’s mother, Anne Soucy. Cafero said he never made the connection that the donations were on behalf of the smoke shop owners and instead assumed Soucy was acting in his role with the Correction Department. Cafero returned the checks once the feds told him where they originated.
So, at the very least, Cafero was made aware of an attempt by Soucy to hand him a cash bribe for the leadership PAC and he failed to report it, and his denial about Soucy’s attempt to bribe him — focusing on the refrigerator rather than the nature of the transaction — fails the smell test based on the videotape evidence.
In a telephone call to CTNewsJunkie editor Christine Stuart on Sept. 28 following the posting of this column, Cafero said, “In order to fail to report a bribe, you’ve got to know it’s a bribe.” This statement fails the smell test as well. If there are no red flags going up when $5,000 in cash arrives in the Minority Leader’s office, then we have much bigger problems than we’ve even realized to date.
Then there is the case of House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz, who was also caught on tape in compromising discussions with Soucy. In one text message exchange, Aresimowicz is told Donovan has received $10,000 from the smoke-shop owners. In subsequent text messages, Soucy informs Aresimowicz that another group of checks totaling $5,000 had been set up for Nassi, to which Aresimowicz replies: “Then we will fix it when Chris lets me know.” Soucy then suggests that he’ll arrange for another $10,000 in donations.
Current House Speaker Brendan Sharkey’s characterization of Aresimowicz’s actions as a “distraction” a few months ago defies logic. So did his assertion that “It’s pretty clear that the majority leader was not involved in any way certainly with regard to any influence, potentially, on the bill.”
Clearly, these men have set a very poor example and are in no position to function as leaders in Hartford. Cafero and Aresimowicz should step down from their legislative leadership posts, at least until the investigation and sentencings are concluded and state authorities say definitively whether they plan to investigate them as well.
And even if the feds opt not to forward their evidence to the State’s Attorney’s Office, or if the State’s Attorney declines to prosecute them for failing to report bribes, Cafero and Aresimowicz have compromised their integrity, brought dishonor to themselves and great disappointment to their constituents. So voters in their districts would be wise to send them packing. Or perhaps party leaders will lean on them not to run for re-election in 2016.
As for Donovan, he was said to be contemplating a return to public life or perhaps a position as a labor leader. As is the case with Aresimowicz and Cafero, voters and union members would be wise to think carefully before electing Donovan to anything. Nutmeggers talk a good game about the disgrace of being known as “Corrupticut.” But if we let these three men get away with their misdeeds, we shouldn’t take ourselves seriously anymore.
Doug Hardy contributed to this column.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We updated this op-ed Saturday, Sept. 28, based on a call from Rep. Cafero, who reiterated his contention that Soucy never actually placed an envelope in his office refrigerator.