UNITED STATES NEWS

Former Connecticut lawmaker gets 27 months in prison for stealing over $1 million in coronavirus aid

May 30, 2023, 9:25 PM | Updated: May 31, 2023, 12:34 pm

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A former Connecticut state representative was sentenced to 27 months in prison on Wednesday for stealing more than $1.2 million from the city of West Haven — most of it in federal coronavirus-related aid — and using a good chunk of it to fuel his gambling addiction.

“I stole that money. That is on me,” Michael DiMassa said as he apologized during sentencing before Judge Omar Williams in federal court in Hartford. “It’s hard to find the word to express how I feel. I feel ashamed, embarrassed, mortified.”

The 32-year-old West Haven Democrat pleaded guilty in November to three counts of wire fraud conspiracy, admitting he, his wife and others billed the city for services never rendered.

DiMassa could have gotten more than four years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. But the judge gave him credit for fully accepting responsibility, cooperating with investigators and testifying against a co-defendant.

DiMassa — in dark gray suit, maroon shirt and black-and-red striped tie — also was ordered to pay the city nearly $866,000 in restitution. He remains free on bond and must report to prison by July 31.

Despite DiMassa’s contrition, West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi, a fellow Democrat, blasted him during the sentencing hearing. She said the pandemic aid he stole could have gone to businesses that really needed it.

“The city placed its trust in Mr. DiMassa,” Rossi said. “Our trust was misplaced. He is a liar, a thief, a con artist and a degenerate gambler.”

The criminal cases brought scrutiny on West Haven officials and how the city spent more than $1 million it received in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Rossi, who was criticized for not adequately overseeing the city’s coronavirus-related spending, has said the thefts led to personnel changes and more internal controls.

The thefts began in mid-2020 when DiMassa was both a state representative and an aide to the West Haven City Council, authorized by his city job to approve reimbursements for coronavirus-related expenses.

The easy access to money and his gambling addiction sent DiMassa into a “precipitous downward spiral,” his lawyer, John Gulash, wrote in court documents.

Gulash compared DiMassa with Howard Ratner, the gambler played by Adam Sandler in the movie “Uncut Gems.” He said DiMassa bet on things as frivolous as how long the national anthem would take at the Super Bowl, or what color Gatorade would be poured on the winning coach.

He did much of his gambling at the Mohegan Sun casino in eastern Connecticut.

Gulash said the thefts destroyed the good reputation DiMassa built over the years.

He graduated with honors from Notre Dame High School in West Haven, named the school’s “Man of the Year.” He also graduated magna cum laude from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven with a business management degree, Gulash said.

DiMassa embarked on a public service career, working for the city and winning three terms in the state House of Representatives — jobs he resigned from after his 2021 arrest.

Prosecutors said DiMassa stole the money in different schemes with three co-defendants, all of whom were convicted and ordered to pay varying amounts of restitution.

DiMassa and his wife, Lauren, made off with nearly $148,000 by submitting phony requests for city payments to a youth violence prevention program, authorities said. Those funds were not federal coronavirus aid.

Lauren DiMassa, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child and has two teenage daughters from a previous marriage, pleaded guilty last year. She recently began a six-month prison sentence handed down in March. She also was ordered to pay nearly $148,000 in restitution.

Michael DiMassa and a business partner, John Bernardo, also a former West Haven city employee, pilfered nearly $637,000 in coronavirus relief funds, prosecutors said. They formed a company that fraudulently billed the city for legal, lobbying and consulting services never rendered, they said.

Bernardo pleaded guilty to wire fraud and was sentenced to 13 months in prison in March. He also must pay nearly $59,000 in restitution, the amount authorities say he personally pocketed.

DiMassa and another business owner, John Trasacco, conspired to submit fraudulent invoices from Trasacco’s companies to the city, netting nearly $432,000 in COVID-19 aid. Nearly all of that went to Trasacco, whose jury conviction for fraud drew him an eight-year prison sentence in March.

Trasacco was ordered to pay back the city nearly $144,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Miller on Wednesday called DiMassa’s actions a betrayal to the city and his constituents. But he also credited DiMassa for testifying against Trasacco and helping secure his conviction.

DiMassa, who has been battling testicular cancer, apologized again while speaking to reporters outside the courthouse.

“There’s so much I could say and so many people I could apologize to,” he said. “And words don’t do it justice. I hope to follow all the guidelines imposed by the court today, serve my time and to try to turn this into a positive thing for others.”

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Former Connecticut lawmaker gets 27 months in prison for stealing over $1 million in coronavirus aid