NEW HAVEN — An apologetic Joshua Nassi, the campaign manager for former House Speaker Christopher Donovan’s ill-fated congressional campaign, was sentenced to 28 months in federal prison Thursday for his role in hiding the sources of campaign contributions.
Nassi, 35, addressed U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton for 12 minutes, apologized several times for his role in a scheme to pass conduit contributions to Donovan’s campaign in exchange for assurances that legislation aimed at increasing taxes on “roll-your-own” tobacco shops would be killed in the legislature.
Saying Nassi was central to the scheme because he provided “access to Mr. Donovan,” Arterton issued a sentence at the high end of the federal guidelines of 24-30 months.
“Character is said to be what you do when nobody is looking and here unbeknownst to Mr. Nassi the FBI was looking, listening and watching and the result is he got caught in this ludicrously crass effort to corrupt,” Arterton said.
Nassi was the fifth of the eight defendants indicted in 2012 to be sentenced for their roles in a scheme that saw the owners of a roll-your-own tobacco store in Waterbury funnel $27,000 to Donovan’s congressional campaign while hiding the identity of the donors.
In exchange, the group sought assurances from Nassi that Donovan would prevent a bill to increase taxes on the smoke shops to come to a vote. The bill never made it the House during the regular legislative session, but a law taxing the smoke shops was passed during a special session that followed the exposure of the conspiracy.
Nassi told the court that when he listened to conversations recorded by the FBI and read prosecution reports “I was constantly asking myself what was I thinking?”
“I am personally appalled when I look back at what I did,” he said. “I had a duty to stop all if this as soon as it was brought to my attention and I failed. I am sorry to my family, friends, co-workers and everyone who hears about this story and thinks differently about our government.”
Arterton acknowledged Nassi had no financial gain from the scheme, didn’t invent it, admitted his part in it and had no criminal history “but he was the key access to Mr. Donovan and he was the one who not only could have but should have pulled the plug.”
Former Donovan campaign finance director Robert Braddock Jr. received 38 months. He was the only defendant to go to trial. The others have received between 21 -24 months in prison.
The three defendants yet to be sentenced include Raymond Soucy, a former Department of Correction union official who concocted the scheme and later cooperated with federal authorities against the others, including Nassi. Soucy is scheduled to be sentenced in October.
Nassi plead guilty last April to one count of conspiracy to cause false statements from Donovan’s campaign to be filed with the Federal Election Commission. He has remained free on a $100,000 bond.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Nassi faced 24-30 months in prison.
In their sentencing memorandum, federal prosecutors asked Arterton to make that sentence at least 24 months arguing his accepting guilt and remorsefulness does not outweigh the seriousness of the crime or his role in it.
“Only Mr. Nassi had direct access to Mr. Donovan and his legislative staff. By virtue of that access, Mr. Nassi was able to provide inside information to Mr. Soucy about the status of RYO (roll your own) legislation and their joint effort to defeat it,” prosecutors wrote.
“And only Mr. Nassi could arrange for Mr. Soucy to secure a commitment from Mr. Donovan himself that he was working against the RYO legislation, which he (Donovan) later confirmed when he told Mr. Soucy ‘I took care of you, didn’t I,?'”
Prosecutors are referring to a statement Donovan made to Soucy backstage at the Democratic nominating convention in Waterbury in 2012. Soucy was secretly videotaping the meeting when Donovan greeted him with that statement. But as Soucy started talking about having more money to contribute Donovan backed away and said he had nothing to do with the bill never coming for a vote.
Donovan has denied any wrongdoing and has not been arrested. When Nassi was arrested Donovan said he was saddened that he trusted Josh Nassi and “he disappointed not only me, but also the people he served as one of my advisers.”
Donovan eventually lost the Democratic primary for the congressional seat to Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty.
In his court filings, Nassi lawyer William Bloss attempted to explain Nassi’s fall after 15 years working for campaign finance reform, open government and economic justice.
Bloss said Nassi was under intense pressure as Donovan’s campaign finance director because the race for the Democratic spot in the 5th Congressional District race was closer than anticipated.
“In effect, his career in politics might have been over very shortly after it started, losing a race that no one thought could be lost,” Bloss said.
Bloss also acknowledged that Nassi was probably over his head because he had never run a congressional campaign before. In state elections, candidates need to raise $15,000 to qualify for public financing, far less than what is needed for a hotly contested federal campaign.
“Truthfully he was probably not ready to serve in this capacity, while he had very substantial experience in state races, his experience in federal races was much less,” Bloss wrote.
Bloss said look no further than Nassi choosing Braddock as campaign finance director as proof.
“Braddock had no connection to Connecticut, to political activists in Connecticut, to fundraising sources in Connecticut or to anyone working closely on the campaign. But he was hired because, in short, he was available, he had experience and Nassi didn’t know any better,” Bloss said.
Story by Dave Altimari, The Hartford Courant