Jury to begin deliberations in West Haven fraud case Friday
Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys delivered their closing arguments on Thursday as part of a high-profile criminal trial that included allegations about kickbacks, bogus invoices, shell companies and a massive level of fraud within the West Haven city government.
The jury will decide whether John Trasacco, a Branford businessman and city contractor, is guilty of wire fraud and a federal conspiracy charge for allegedly stealing more than $431,000 from West Haven taxpayers.
U.S. District Judge Omar Williams provided instructions to the jury on Thursday and advised them that they would be called back into federal court to deliberate on Friday morning.
But before he issued those orders, the federal prosecutors and Trasacco’s defense attorneys delivered their final pitches to the jurors.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Miller spent more than half an hour walking the jurors through the various evidence that was presented in the case. That included bank statements, casino records, financial documents from the city and allegedly bogus invoices for hundreds of thousands of dollars that two of Trasacco’s companies submitted to West Haven.
Miller also reminded the jurors about the testimony delivered by various witnesses — including the insider account that was provided by Michael DiMassa, a former state Democratic lawmaker and West Haven employee.
DiMassa, who was arrested last year and recently pleaded guilty to three separate conspiracy charges, was the prosecution’s star witness during the roughly two-week trial. He helped to weave the narrative presented by prosecutors and to fill in the gaps between the documents that were presented to the jury.
As part of that testimony, DiMassa told jurors that Trasacco provided him with phony invoices for masks, COVID supplies and a study on how to install ultraviolet lights that were capable of sanitizing public buildings.
DiMassa explained how he processed those invoices for Trasacco. And he testified under oath that Trasacco on at least two occasions slipped wads of money into his pocket in return for passing off the allegedly fake paperwork.
Miller argued the evidence against Trasacco was overwhelming, and he repeatedly encouraged the jury to ask themselves one question: Were these the actions of a legitimate businessman, or was it fraud?
The public defenders representing Trasacco argued to the jury that their client is a legitimate business owner, and they said his companies had simply failed to provide all of the services that were contracted.
To support their point, the defense attorneys noted the roughly 280 masks that were given to DiMassa and placed in his garage. They also highlighted emails that showed Trasacco communicated with two companies that manufactured the ultraviolet lights that he was supposed to install in city buildings and public schools.
Much of the defense team’s closing arguments, however, were focused on the West Haven city government and DiMassa.
They argued the municipal government in West Haven was wholly incompetent, and they sought to discredit DiMassa by portraying him as a talented and experienced liar to make the jury question his testimony.
Lillian Odongo, one of Trasacco’s attorneys, highlighted the testimony of West Haven’s current and former finance directors, who told jurors about the lack of oversight in the city procurement process.
She called the city a “free-for-all,” and she said that “everyone was dipping in.”
“There is no secret the city of West Haven’s finances were mismanaged,” Odongo said.
Turning to DiMassa, Odongo called the former state lawmaker “two-faced,” “conniving” and “self-serving.” She noted how DiMassa separately ran two other schemes, including one with his current wife, to steal roughly $737,000 from the city for himself.
And she reminded the jury that Frank Cieplinski, the city’s former finance director, called DiMassa a “shit bag” when he was interviewed by the FBI.
Odongo went on to argue that DiMassa was only testifying to receive a lighter prison sentence. She also accused the FBI and federal prosecutors of running a shoddy investigation and “coaching” DiMassa on what to say.
“Do not convict my client because the city of West Haven lacked insight and financial management,” she said. “Do not convict my client because DiMassa lacked a moral compass.”
The prosecutors countered those arguments by referring the jurors back to the evidence and witnesses they presented during trial.
They highlighted how many of the top officials in the West Haven government said they knew nothing about the items and services that Trasacco’s two companies were purportedly supplying to the city.
The prosecutors also addressed the defense team’s efforts to discredit DiMassa and impeach his character.
The jury, Miller said, did not have to condone DiMassa’s behavior in order to believe his testimony that he passed off fraudulent invoices on behalf of Trasacco and his companies.
“You don’t have to like Mr. DiMassa,” Miller told them.
Miller and his colleagues also attempted to tear down the argument that Trasacco’s failure to supply the masks and other services was due to innocent errors and timing.
Miller reminded the jury that DiMassa said he received only 280 masks from Trasacco, while the city paid for thousands of them. And he pointed out that Trasacco delivered that single box of masks to DiMassa while they were in the parking lot behind an Italian restaurant in Branford — the same location where Trasacco allegedly slipped wads of cash into DiMassa’s pocket.
“Is that what a legitimate vendor does?” Miller asked the jury.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sheldon also questioned the emails that Trasacco presented to show that he was inquiring about the ultraviolet lighting that would be installed in eight public buildings in West Haven.
He began by noting that two of those buildings were closed — one of them was even boarded up, according to city officials.
Sheldon pulled up a timeline for jurors and showed them how Trasacco reached out to the two lighting manufacturers after DiMassa allegedly told him about the FBI visiting West Haven city hall.
And if the jury didn’t buy those arguments, Sheldon pointed to the bank records for Trasacco’s company.
He highlighted for jurors how there was only a few dollars left in the company’s account by the time Trasacco was seeking quotes for the ultraviolet lights. Much of that money, the bank records show, was spent at a casino where Trasacco was captured on camera making the withdrawals.
Sheldon said all of that proved that Trasacco’s line of defense was a “flimsy story” that was “concocted after the fact” in order to make the invoices seem legitimate.