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"I'm shutting you down," appellate court judge John T. Buckley barked over and over at prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, according to court records.
The remarks came in an unusual and blunt collision between the judge and the attorneys during a noontime meeting held in Buckley's chambers on September 9, 1999, as prosecutors were bringing him up to date on the probe. They also wanted to dispel concerns the judge had voiced weeks earlier when he said that the "rendering of political services in exchange for campaign contributions was not always improper."
But according to a memo by an investigator who was present, Buckley bizarrely compared the influence-peddling schemes under investigation in the Velella case with his own days as a state legislator when grateful constituents gave him free turkeys and liquor. And despite agreeing that there was "probable cause" to believe crimes were underwaythe crucial legal threshold necessary for approved eavesdroppingBuckley insisted that the plug be pulled on wiretaps.
It was only later, after appealing to chief state administrative judge Jonathan Lippman, that Morgenthau's team was able to get the wires reinstated and continue its investigation.
Buckley refused to discuss the incident, as did other officials. But the run-in raises the question of whether politics nearly derailed a case that held potentially devastating consequences for Velella, a top Republican power broker and fundraiser with close ties to Pataki.
A Republican from upstate Utica, Buckley was a brand-new Pataki appointee on the appellate panel, which hears appeals in Manhattan and the Bronx, when Morgenthau's office, in search of a judge with broad jurisdiction, presented its eavesdropping applications to him. The judge was one of several upstate Republicans picked by the governor to sit on downstate appellate courts, a move that was seen as a Pataki effort to shift the balance of power on the appeals bench from Democrats to Republicans. Since then, Buckley has cast numerous controversial votes, including the decision to move the Amadou Diallo police-shooting case out of the Bronx.
The Velella corruption probe was new territory for Buckley. The only previous wiretaps he had overseen involved bookmaking operations, he said, according to the memo of the 1999 meeting by state police senior investigator Gustav Talleur, which was later filed in court. The judge didn't dispute that the Velella wiretaps, which had already been in place for four months, had been productive. Buckley nodded knowingly, the memo said, as assistant district attorneys Blake Coppotelli, Kelly Donovan, and Olivia Sohmer detailed instances of apparent bribery uncovered by the bugs. The intercepted conversations showed that, in exchange for help with state and city officials, contractors and others were funneling thousands of dollars disguised as legal fees to Velella and his father, Vincent.
Buckley, however, suggested that Velella's conduct was not all that different from his own as a legislator in the 1960s and '70s, according to the memo.
Back then, Buckley said, constituents whom he had helped "would sometimes seek to express their gratitude with a gift," the memo stated. "When he received such a gift, he would not keep it, but would send it to a charitable organization . . . along with a cover letter indicating that he and the constituent were sending this charitable donation. He would then send a copy of that cover letter to the constituent as well."
On one occasion, after he had defeated a beer tax opposed by Utica's breweries, an Albany lobbyist who had worked on the matter sent him a smoked turkey for Christmas. Buckley said that he handled this problem by sending a smoked turkey to the lobbyist. Another time, the judge said, he had returned "a case of liquor or wine from the owner of the liquor store where he had worked as a delivery boy." He returned the gifts, he told prosecutors, "because he felt uncomfortable receiving them."
The judge, who served in the state assembly from 1967 to 1972, said that to fund his re-election campaigns he sent a letter to everyone who had contacted him during his prior term, asking them to buy a $10 ticket to his fundraiser. "He stated that he did not think there was anything wrong with having done that," the memo said.
Buckley acknowledged that "perhaps his perspective of the case is colored by his experience as a legislator, although times have changed," the memo stated. But the judge went on to say that Manuel Gonzalez, described by prosecutors as the bagman for the Velellas, "may indeed have counseled his 'clients' well by advising them to make various political contributions."
Prosecutors tried to persuade the judge that Velella's actions were of a radically different stripe. Coppotelli, who was then leading the investigation, "pointed out that the instant case does not deal with gifts of liquor, wine, or turkeys, but rather tens of thousands of dollars paid through the senator's and his father's law firm."