By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Secret, court-approved wiretaps produced much of the evidence that persuaded former Bronx state senator Guy Velella to plead guilty to bribery charges last week. But at a key point in the investigation, the government's eavesdropping came to a screeching halt, the Voice has learned, when a top state judge appointed by Governor Pataki refused to permit continued bugging of Velella's conversations.
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."
At one point, Buckley suggested that, in lieu of wiretaps, the D.A. should serve subpoenas and try to flip Gonzalez, the memo stated. Failing that, the judge suggested that Vincent Velella be charged. Prosecutors countered that subpoenas would only tip off the targets and that Gonzalez was unlikely at that stage to cooperate. As for Vincent Velella, Coppotelli said that "the old man"as Gonzalez referred to the elder Velella"would not end up going to jail anyway."
The discussion hit a brick wall when prosecutors said that ending the wiretaps would probably allow Guy Velella to escape unscathed. As described in the memo, the judge's demeanor suddenly changed: "To this, the judge replied abruptly and in a manner inconsistent with his tone to that point, 'I'm shutting you down.' This statement was quite startling because, up to this point, it had appeared that the judge had been agreeing that Guy Velella's conduct was illegal and that the wires continued to be productive."
When prosecutors continued to present their arguments, the memo said, Buckley "slapped his open hand down on his desk" and repeated, "I'm shutting you down."
According to the memo, Coppotelli then said: "What about the senator? He is the corrupt politician, he is the hub of the wheel. He is the thing that makes this scheme work."
Buckley was unmoved. "I'm shutting you down," he said.
When Coppotelli asked the judge the reason for his decision, the judge cut him off, saying, "Are you telling me that I need a legal basis? Don't I have the discretion to cut you off?" Coppotelli acknowledged that he did. "Of course you do, of course you have the discretion."
The judge then repeated, "I'm shutting you down."
The prosecutors made one last try, asking if there was "anything that could be done investigatively that would assuage the judge's concerns and allow for continued eavesdropping." Buckley said one more time: "I'm shutting you down."
The prosecutors thanked the judge for his time and returned to their office, where they promptly ordered the wiretap monitors to cease intercepting conversations.
Several hours later, the judge was apparently still thinking about the matter. At 6:30 p.m., Buckley called the prosecutors and asked when the deadline was on the current wiretap authorization. Told that it had another week to run, the judge said, "That's when I want to do it."
After Morgenthau's office won new eavesdropping warrants from Bronx Supreme Court Justice John Collins, records show the case grew substantially. The bugs were expanded to include Guy Velella's office, where much of the evidence later presented to the grand jury was obtained. Velella, his father, Gonzalez, and two others were later indicted, charges that resulted last week in guilty pleas from all, except for 90-year-old Vincent Velella. As Coppotelli had predicted, "the old man" beat the rap when charges against him were dropped in exchange for the senator's guilty plea.
Buckley was also unaffected by the incident. Last year, Pataki promoted the judge a notch highernaming him presiding justice of the Appellate Division's First Department, one of the most powerful judicial posts in the state.