The campaign manager for longtime U.S. Rep. Chris Shays pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that he embezzled about $250,000 in campaign funds.
Michael Sohn of Fairfield was arrested earlier Friday on a 12-count indictment charging him with stealing campaign funds from 2005 to 2008 by writing himself checks and using the campaign's debit card for unauthorized purchases.
He pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport. A judge released him on $100,000 bail and agreed that he should undergo mental health treatment.
Shays filed documents with the Federal Election Commission detailing unauthorized ATM withdrawals for cell phone service and for luxury purchases from places such as a limousine service, a steakhouse, an online ticketing agency and a New York City hotel and restaurant.
Sohn's attorney, federal public defender Deirdre Murray, declined to comment.
Sohn worked for nearly six years as campaign manager for Shays, a moderate Republican who served 10 terms in Congress. Shays narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Himes in 2008 in the race for the 4th District in southwestern Connecticut that he had represented for 21 years.
The last New England Republican in the House of Representatives, Shays had fended off a series of close elections in his wealthy, conservative district but couldn't overcome a Democrat stronghold in 2008 fueled by the unpopularity of Republican President George W. Bush.
Prosecutors say Sohn caused Shays' campaign committee to file four false campaign reports in 2008 because the reports didn't accurately report the campaign's expenditures and cash available. They also charge that Sohn failed to file federal income tax returns from 2005 to 2007 and didn't report $88,000 in income on his 2008 tax return.
In all, the 34-year-old Sohn faces four counts of illegally converting campaign contributions to his personal use, four counts of making false statements, three counts of filing a federal income tax return and one count of tax evasion.
Just weeks after Shays was defeated, a post-election review of his campaign finances uncovered a series of irregularities.
Shays, a champion of campaign finance reform, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday. Previously, Shays had called the alleged embezzlement "a serious and sad situation."
"If true, the actions of this individual represent a betrayal of my campaign, its supporters and the very things I stand for, but in no way do they reflect upon the incredibly dedicated and honorable service of my other staff members and extended family of volunteers and supporters," he said a year ago.
In July, the campaign also owed nearly $28,000 in unpaid payroll taxes from money that was siphoned off to cover up the embezzlement, Shays said. Sohn didn't put some employees into the campaign's payroll system, which would have automatically deducted the taxes, Shays said.
Sohn faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of illegally converting campaign contributions, 20 years for making false statements and up to eight years if convicted of the tax charges, prosecutors said.