The FBI probe of House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan’s campaign finances has unleashed a torrent of work for seven criminal defense lawyers, who are already busy representing two former political staffers and five “roll your own” tobacco merchants caught up in the investigation.

As the list of potential witnesses seeking legal counsel grows, the top White Collar defense lawyers in the state face a challenge of both chance and skill — how to end up representing a “big fish” client — with big-ticket legal exposure, instead of a minnow or no client at all.

Potentially the biggest defense fish of all — Donovan himself — has retained Bridgeport’s Shelley Sadin, of Zeldes, Needle & Cooper. But Connecticut’s U.S. Attorney David Fein has not so much as hinted that Donovan may be a target for any charges in his own campaign’s legal troubles. So, if he turns out to be as innocent as he insists he is, Donovan would be more minnow than whale as a defense client.

An August 14 Democratic primary is approaching for the congressional seat vacated when U.S. Rep. Christopher Murphy decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Donovan, the nominee of the state Democratic Party, is facing two lesser-known primary challengers.

Indictments that were recently made public revealed an alleged scheme involving former Donovan staff members, who are accused of using hidden, or “straw” contributors to hide $27,500 in contributions made to the campaign by roll-your-own tobacco businesses in the Waterbury area over a six-month period.

The charges carry possible penalties ranging from two years for former staff members accused of accepting disguised contributions and up to 20 years against members of the tobacco businesses accused of bribery.

Since the arrests, there has been mounting pressure to lift the cloud over Donovan’s head. In a discreet comment to The Connecticut Mirror, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy suggested Fein might break the suspense and tell the voters whether Donovan is a suspect.

“If it is at all possible for the U.S. Attorney to say whether the speaker is a target, that would be heplful and valuable information for the voters to make their decision on the 14th,” the governor told The Mirror.

No such statement has been offered by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“It’s just my hunch, but it’s beginning to appear that they are unable to produce sufficient evidence against [Speaker Donovan] to charge him,” said New Haven criminal defense lawyer Hugh F. Keefe, who is defending one of the men charged, tobacco store owner Paul Rogers. “That’s my theory.”

Bridgeport criminal defense lawyer Michael A. Fitzpatrick, who is representing another of the seven, Wolcott construction company owner Daniel Monteiro, described the case so far as “a lot like Hamlet, without the prince.”

The first defense lawyer to enter an appearance in the case was Bridgeport’s Frank Riccio II, for Donovan’s 33-year-old campaign finance manager, Robert Braddock Jr., on May 30. For two months Braddock was the lone defendant in the case.

Then, on July 25 a federal grand jury charged Donovan’s fired congressional campaign manager, Joshua Nassi, and six businessmen who all had connections to tobacco shops. The six were charged with conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions.

The indictment describes the use of $2,500 checks from intermediaries to disguise a $27,500 illegal contribution designed to kill a bill to tax roll-your-own cigarette machine usage. The profitability of roll-your-own shops would suffer if they were taxed as cigarette manufacturers.

The tax bill was not passed in the regular legislative session, which ended May 9th, but after Braddock’s arrest, it was approved during a subsequent special session. That’s when the allegations of a campaign scandal heated up.

On Tuesday, July 24, in a proceeding that was temporarily sealed, Harry Raymond Soucy, of Naugatuck, pleaded guilty to charges of disguising campaign contributions illegally. A former Department of Corrections employee and treasurer of a union local, Soucy started cooperating with FBI investigators in April, they say, and recorded conversations discussing the alleged conspiracies with other defendants.

Donovan’s former congressional campaign manager, Nassi, 34, is represented by William Bloss, of Bridgeport’s Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder. Bloss, formerly of Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt & Dow, has defended challenging white collar cases, including an Arthur Anderson defendant criminally charged in the Colonial Realty scandal of the early 1990′s.

Top Hartford criminal defense lawyer Hubert Santos, of Santos & Seeley, is representing Benjamin Hogan, of Southington, an employee of Smoke House Tobacco , a roll-your-own tobacco shop with two Waterbury locations.

David Moffa, of Middlebury, is represented by Richard T. Meehan, Jr., of Bridgeport’s Meehan, Meehan & Gavin. Moffa is a former Department of Corrections employee and a former president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 387.

George Tirado, 35, of Waterbury, is a co-owner of Smoke House Tobacco and is represented by George G. Mowad II, of Yamin & Grant in Waterbury.

One feature of criminal defense practice illustrated in this case is that a lawyer often has limited control over who she or he winds up with as a client.

Keefe described it this way: “At the very beginning, when someone contacts you, you have to make a preliminary assessment where on the totem pole this person falls. Is it more likely if you don’t see them, or take the case right away, you’re apt to get a larger fish? ” Ethical considerations often prevent lawyers from being choosy, he said.

In the Donovan campaign probe, a number of top white collar defense lawyers are representing unindicted witnesses, or others whose roles may be minor or invisible.

Defense veteran William F. Dow III , for example, confirmed he is representing a witness.

It’s not unusual for prominent lawyers to represent cameo players, said James Pickerstein, of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Southport, who has no current involvement in this case.

In 2004, Pickerstein represented the office of the Governor during former Gov. John Rowland’s pre-impeachment investigation. In the 1999 bribery scandal of former state treasurer Paul J. Silvester, Pickerstein agreed to represent a treasury official who had little legal exposure or available funds for legal fees — only to be asked later if he’d represent Boston’s Triumph Capital Group, which had much of both. But by then, Pinkerstein said, “I was conflicted out. And I had the one defendant who had no money. That happens to all of us. It’s a very difficult call to make.”

Pickerstein, who has handled challenging death row cases pro bono, said getting clients in cases with large numbers of defendants can feel a lot like a game of chance.

“Frankly I have usually just taken the first guy in the door, and not given it a lot of thought, sometimes to my financial detriment. That’s just the risks of the game.”

At Hartford’s Rome McGuigan, former state prosecutor Glen Coe said a widening federal investigation is often good for the white collar defense bar. One reason is that it is a crime to lie to a federal investigator. In fact, about half of the counts in the indictments against the campaign fund scheme defendants are for making false statements to federal investigators. “There’s nothing parallel to that in the state statutes, unless you were to put your signature to a statement that turned out to be false in some material respect.,” said Coe. “Anyone who is contacted by federal law enforcement, it would obviously behoove them to have an attorney by their side. “

Stanley Twardy, of Day Pitney’s Stamford office, conducted an internal investigation at Donovan’s request, and found no evidence that Donovan knew of any of the alleged illegalities perpetrated by his campaign and House staff.

A former U.S. Attorney himself, Twardy commented, “It can be expensive to hire a lawyer, but it can be a lot more costly to speak to a federal investigator without one.”

The white collar lawyers interviewed for this story agreed that just meeting with a potential client could create conflicts that precluded representing other defendants in the same matter.

Conversely, such prospective clients are well-protected by state attorney ethics rules. David Atkins, of Pullman & Comley, concentrates on legal ethics representation. He noted, “In 2007, Rule 1.18 , for the first time defined in the rules the obligations to prospective clients.”

The confidentiality of those conversations, and all sensitive information that is learned is broadly protected, even though no actual attorney-client representation ensues, Atkins explained.

In a small state like Connecticut, criminal defense lawyers feel the pressure of conflicts on a regular basis, said Tara Knight, of New Haven’s Knight & Cerritelli

“What happens so often is you get a witness [as a client], and then the target calls you up,” she said. “That happened to me in the recent `gifting table’ case involving women who were all from Madison. A witness called me up, I started representing her, and then one of the targets called me up, which would have been much more lucrative — but I could no longer represent her.”

Steve Errante, of Lynch Traub Keefe & Errante in New Haven, said lawyers sometimes simply delay returning a call from a “small fish” if a call from a “big fish” is expected soon.

All this fishing goes both ways.

For Donovan, the life of a congressional candidate, and its inescapable fundraising chores, has not stopped because of the ongoing investigation. At the same time, dozens of well-qualified white collar defense lawyers were optimistically hoping he’d give them a call.

At least one — not identified in this story —delightedly answered a phone call from Donovan’s office, expecting a possible engagement.

The harsh reality? It was only a campaign fundraising call.•