The trial of Frank Ruocco that began in Bridgeport federal court this week is the culmination of more than eight years of state and federal investigations into alleged contracting fraud, corruption and sweetheart deals.

The charges against him have nothing to do with the tens of millions of dollars Ruocco and his North Haven-based companies have gotten from the state Department of Transportation. They don’t involve old allegations that he did favors for state environmental officials in return for lucrative contracts. There’s nothing in the indictment concerning questions about how he got his contract on a huge Hartford redevelopment project, or the $24 million he received for working on Stamford’s Urban Transitway.

Instead, federal prosecutors are going after Ruocco and his Earth Technology Inc. excavation company for allegedly bilking a New York developer out of $310,000. They claim Ruocco orchestrated a complex scheme linking the 2004 Queens, N.Y., project, a New Jersey dirt disposal operation and an alleged front company in Massachusetts Ruocco was secretly financing.

“This case is about greed, it’s about deceit, and it’s about secrecy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Glover told the federal jury. He insisted that Ruocco, one of his project managers named Boris Tomicic, and Earth Technology are guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering.
Ruocco has always denied any wrongdoing. He’s blamed all the allegations and investigations on disgruntled employees and publicity-hungry public officials.

His high-powered legal team in this case, including noted New Haven defense attorney William Dow and former Chief State’s Attorney Austin McGuigan, claims the feds have their facts all wrong.

“There was no fraud,” McGuigan argued in his opening statement, saying Ruocco’s company was simply carrying out the hurry-up orders to get rid of 3,000 tons of lead-contaminated dirt.

“There’s nothing improper or illegal in a silent partnership,” Dow said of Ruocco’s hidden ownership of that Massachusetts company.

Kenneth Rosenthal, Tomicic’s lawyer, admitted his client “made a mistake” by faking bid documents relating to the New York project. But, Rosenthal told the jury, neither Tomicic nor the company he worked for committed criminal offenses.

Ruocco’s trial is expected to drag on for weeks.

The charges concern a $300 million shopping mall project on a 12-acre former industrial site. The development company was headed by H. Dale Hemmerdinger, former head of the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

According to the feds, Earth Technology got a dirt-removal contract and, when lead contamination was found, was given the additional task of removing the hazardous stuff. The toxic soil was taken to a disposal site in New Jersey at a cost of $127.50 per ton.

But Ruocco had the New Jersey firm send the bill to the Massachusetts company he’d secretly financed. That firm tacked on an additional “brokerage” fee and sent the bill to Earth Technology in Connecticut. Ruocco added another 15 percent to the tab before handing it to the developer. By then, the disposal price tag had soared to more than $250 per ton.

Trouble started when the developer’s insurance company began asking questions. Prosecutors allege Earth Technology then came up with fake disposal bids in an attempt to show that Ruocco’s Massachusetts company was the low bidder.

Back in 2004, Connecticut’s Attorney General’s Office charged that Ruocco used a very similar scheme involving two different companies he owned to overcharge the state by some $200,000 on a DOT project in Southington. According to then Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) Richard Blumenthal, state transportation officials declined to cooperate and nothing was ever done to recover that money.

Connecticut officials never took action to stop Ruocco’s company from working for the state, explaining neither he nor Earth Technology had ever been found guilty of anything. According to a current DOT list, Ruocco’s company remains one of the agency’s “pre-qualified construction firms” available to work on state projects.

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- State Attorney General’s Office launches investigation into news reports raising questions about whether Ruocco had inside information that got him a $24.2 million contract at Hartford’s Adriaen’s Landing redevelopment project.

- Investigation expands to a DOT project in Southington. State investigators conclude Ruocco’s Earth Technology Inc. overcharged the state by $200,000 for dirt disposal.

- New allegations surface that Ruocco did tens of thousands of dollars of work at the homes of state Department of Environmental Protection supervisors. State investigators allege the work was done to get “sweetheart deals” on state work.

- Federal investigations begin.

- Head of Earth Technology II, another Ruocco company, pleads guilty to inflating costs for cleaning up federal superfund site in Derby. Company pays $500,000 fine. Ruocco sells his interest in company before guilty plea, is not charged.

- State contract officials clear Ruocco’s company to continue bidding on state projects.

- Ruocco and Earth Technology indicted on 19 counts of wire fraud, conspiracy and money laundering in connection with New York shopping mall project. He pleads not guilty.

- Federal trial begins in Bridgeport. If found guilty on all counts Ruocco could face 20 years in prison, fines of up to $9.5 million. Earth Technology has been be paid approximately $37 million in state taxpayer money over the past eight years, including an estimated $9 million in the two years since he was indicted.