Final witnesses called in West Haven fraud trial
The final witnesses in a federal criminal trial involving alleged fraud in West Haven took the stand on Wednesday, but one high-profile witness exited the courthouse without ever being called in front of the jury.
West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, a Democrat who is serving her third term in office, sat in a hallway in the federal courthouse in Hartford for most the day, in the expectation that she would be called as a witness for the defense.
But in the end, attorneys for John Trasacco, a Branford resident who is accused of conspiring to steal more than $431,000 from West Haven taxpayers, chose not to put Rossi under oath.
Instead, the public defenders representing Trasacco decided to wrap up the trial after presenting just three witnesses in defense of their client.
The small number of witnesses called by Trasacco’s attorneys stood in stark contrast to the list of people that federal prosecutors paraded in front of the jury over the course of five days.
Those witnesses included bank and casino employees, a federal agent, multiple officials from the West Haven government, and Michael DiMassa, a former state lawmaker and city employee who said he worked with Trasacco to pass off hundreds of thousands of dollars in phony invoices.
Federal prosecutors deployed DiMassa and the other witnesses over the past two weeks to lay out their case against Trasacco.
DiMassa, who already pleaded guilty to three federal conspiracy charges, testified that he approved phony invoices for two of Trasacco’s companies, which were paid to provide COVID supplies to the city and to sanitize several city buildings and public schools.
The West Haven officials who took the stand also told the jury that they never received any of the masks and other services Trasacco’s businesses were paid to deliver.
Despite that testimony, Trasacco’s attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Omar Williams on Wednesday to issue an acquittal and to toss out the case against Trasacco before it could be handed over to the jury.
They argued the federal prosecutors in the case had not met their burden of proof and did not provide enough evidence to prove a conspiracy between Trasacco and DiMassa.
In a likely preview of their closing arguments, the defense attorneys argued that Trasacco was a legitimate businessman with legitimate contracts with the city.
The fact that he failed to provide all of the supplies and services that were promised to West Haven, they said, did not mean that his actions were criminal.
“At most, this is a case of an underperforming contractor,” Andrew Giering, one of Trasacco’s attorneys told the judge.
DiMassa may have helped Trasacco get the contracts with the city because of their personal relationship, Giering said, but that was “par for the course” in West Haven.
“It was in no way unusual or suspicious,” Giering said. “Not in this city. Not at this time.”
But Williams, who was appointed to the federal bench late last year, denied the defense team’s request.
As a result, Trasacco’s legal team called several of their own witnesses to the stand. One of them was Trasacco’s friend, who testified that he maintained a warehouse in Branford and received sweatshirts and supplies in boxes there.
The other two witnesses were salesmen for companies that manufacture ultra violet lights to sanitize rooms and objects. One flew in from Florida for the trial. The other was from Wisconsin.
The defense team called on those witnesses in an effort to show the jury that Trasacco had been in contact with companies that could supply the tens of thousands of dollars in ultra-violet equipment that the city paid for.
After playing several promotional videos for those companies, the defense attorneys highlighted several emails from October and November 2021, which showed Trasacco inquiring about the ultra violet equipment the companies sold.
The federal prosecutors quickly pointed out, however, that Trasacco only contacted the companies after the federal investigation in West Haven became public knowledge.
The first time Trasacco called either of those companies was on Oct. 14, 2021, according to the emails.
That was a week after the FBI visited West Haven city hall to deliver a federal subpoena for records, and six days after Rossi posted a video on Youtube announcing publicly that she had identified fraud in the city’s COVID spending.
DiMassa testified earlier this week that the FBI’s presence in city hall prompted him to call Trasacco to alert him to the federal investigation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sheldon also got the two businessmen to acknowledge for the jury that Trasacco never actually purchased any equipment from their companies, despite being paid $184,000 to provide the cleaning services to the city.
Lawyers for the prosecution and defense are scheduled to deliver their closing remarks to jurors on Thursday.