By Edmund H. Mahony, Hartford Courant
NEW HAVEN – A labor activist at the center of an attempt two years ago to kill a tax on tobacco by bribing a top state lawmaker with tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign money was sentenced Monday to three years probation, the first six months to be served at a half-way house.
Harry Ray Soucy, 61, a state prison guard whose work with public employee unions gave him unusual access at the state Capitol, became the public face of the attempt by roll-you-own tobacco store owners to pay former state House Speaker and Congressional candidate Christopher Donovan to block a proposed tax targeting their businesses in 2012.
U.S. District Judge Janet B. Arterton said she was showing leniency toward Soucy particularly because of what prosecutors called his “extraordinary” cooperation in the case. Soucy had pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiring to violate federal campaign finance law.
Soucy agreed to cooperate when approached by the FBI in 2012. Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover said Soucy’s cooperation was crucial to the government’s successful prosecution of a number of figures in the case.
Soucy was one of eight men arrested in the bribery conspiracy. Most have been sentenced to from 21 to 38 months in prison.
He agreed to wear a hidden microphone and have the government record his conversations. He also testified against others involved in the conspiracy.
Arterton said the sentence is a ” form of imprisonment in that it curtails,” his liberty.
The prosecution did not oppose the sentence.
Arteton said other factors – including that Soucy provides the sole support and care for his sick elderly mother and that he has his own serious health problems – played a part in the sentencing. She also called his actions an aberration in a life otherwise marked by charitable actions and public service.
Donovan, a political favorite of organized labor, denies knowledge of the plot to bribe him and has not been charged. But the scandal that ensued when the bribe attempt became public turned his campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 5th Congressional District last year from front-runner to a political train wreck. He is no longer a member of the state legislature.
Secretly made tape recordings and other evidence presented in court show that Soucy was recruited to the conspiracy by roll-your-own shop owners who realized that the state tax department was pushing enactment of a tax that would eliminate the competitive advantage their stores enjoyed over traditional retailer sellers of tobacco products.
Roll-your-own stores began proliferating about three years ago after investors realized they able under then existing law that could exploit a tax on manufacturers of cigarettes.
With an investment of $100,000 or so, the roll-your-own stores sell tobacco and paper to customers and then allow them to rent machinery that produced cigarettes. One store front operation in Waterbury forecast a profit approaching $400,000 in its first year on an initial investment of $115,000, according to filings in U.S. District Court.
Under the state’s tax proposal – which initially failed, but later was enacted – the roil-your own stores lost their tax advantage.
David Moffa, a former Soucy supervisor at the state corrections department and a roll-your-own investor, told other owners in late 2011, according to court documents, that they would need to “influence legislators” to kill the tax. He recommended they enlist Soucy, a “politically connected labor union activist.”
Soucy admits he agreed to participate in the conspiracy, but said he did so largely out of loyalty to his old boss Moffa.
Early in the investigation, an undercover FBI operative secretly recorded a bombastic Soucy bragging that he could use labor connections in Washington, D.C. to kill any federal tax legislation by spreading illegal campaign money from the U.S. Congress to the White House.
“Out of all my states,” the undercover operative replied, laughing, “I like Connecticut the best.”
Later in the investigation, the FBI induced Soucy to cooperate with them. He agreed to wear a concealed recording device and, over a series of sometimes profane conversations, can be heard engaging store owners and political operatives in incriminating conversations.
The roll-your-own owners are accused of raising $27,500 for Donovan’s campaign and disguising the source of the money by making it appear that the money had been contributed by disinterested, third party donors.