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Endorsements-for-sale probe derailed FBI investigation targeted Independence Party chief

The secretary of the Erie County Independence Party says he wore a wire and allowed his telephone to be tapped last year during an FBI investigation into the alleged sale of political endorsements by party Chairman Anthony L. Orsini.

But Louis P. Corrigan said the probe ended after Justice Department officials in Washington declared that the federal government lacks jurisdiction to prosecute a practice they call "slating."

Neither the FBI nor federal prosecutors would address Corrigan's claim about an investigation. But U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn said his staff reached out to the Office of Public Integrity in Washington to determine if a party official -- as opposed to a public official -- could be criminally charged for taking money in exchange for an endorsement.

"We were told that, since the 1970s, it's been Department of Justice policy that we do not prosecute cases where a candidate pays money to be put on a slate," Flynn said.

Corrigan, however, said he played undercover agent for much of 2006, cooperating in a probe he hoped would weed out corruption from at least a part of local politics.

"I carried a wire for the FBI all last year," Corrigan said, adding that federal agents also tapped his phone to determine whom they would target in a probe they expected to be wide-ranging.

He said federal investigators became especially interested after he talked to two potential candidates while wearing a small transmitter in his shirt pocket.

Corrigan would not reveal the names of either of the people he recorded. But after The Buffalo News independently determined that one of them was Jeffrey A. Bono, a longtime Democratic operative who unsuccessfully ran for the Assembly last May, Corrigan acknowledged that he taped Bono's conversation in the Olympic Restaurant near Buffalo Niagara International Airport last April.

He taped one other person whom he would not name, but said that person refused to give Orsini any money.

Corrigan said Bono told him he paid Orsini $2,000 in cash for the Independence endorsement. He also asked Bono to sign a document detailing the conversation that was secretly taped, which Bono acknowledged he did in an attempt to reverse the endorsement that went to Republican Michael Cole.

"I felt double-crossed by Tony and was in the heat of campaign anger," Bono said. "He had promised me the endorsement over and over again. But when the time came, he told me, 'I have to go with a winner.' "

But Bono disputes the way Corrigan reads all of the document he signed.

"I didn't really like the way the thing was worded," Bono said. "But then I figured, yes, I did give him $2,000. But it was never $2,000 [in one payment]. Whenever there was a fundraiser, I bought a large ticket."

Bono, who did not know he was recorded by FBI microphones until informed by The News, said Corrigan was "pushy" about him signing the document that he said vaguely summarized the conversation.

"If the FBI was pushing him that way, I understand it now," he said. "It was a real dumb mistake."

Asked why his campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections show no payments to either Orsini or the Independence Party, Bono said he filed several as reimbursements from petty cash.

But none of Bono's petty cash reimbursements list payments to either Orsini's personal committee or to the party.

Orsini, meanwhile, said the only money he ever received from Bono was through checks submitted by Democratic congressional candidate Jack Davis, for whom Bono was working at the time.

"Jeff Bono never gave me a dime," he said.

Orsini filed no campaign finance reports with the Board of Elections for the second half of 2006, a violation of election law.

Corrigan said the FBI was excited about the information it expected to glean from wired conversations and tapped telephones. But before the investigation kicked into high gear, Washington officials nixed it in late 2006 because they found nothing in federal law that made the practice illegal.

"The FBI didn't want to give up, but they were ordered off," Corrigan said. "They were very disappointed. The agent was in Washington for a week arguing with the attorney general's staff. It wasn't the FBI that wanted to quit."

Flynn said the public often fails to understand the limits of federal jurisdiction in corruption cases and that most are prosecuted in state and local courts. He said federal prosecutors cannot present a case to a grand jury without solid footing.

A Republican, Flynn acknowledged that he and Orsini discussed him serving as election lawyer for the Independence Party in 2004, before he became U.S. attorney. He said the conversation was between a private attorney seeking business and a potential client, but neither Orsini nor the party ever became his client.

"I was never paid to do legal work or give legal advice," he said. "Like any private lawyer, you seek business."

He emphasized that the decision to drop the Orsini probe in 2006 stemmed not from the 2004 conversation, but from Justice Department concern over a lack of jurisdiction.

Orsini, who as Independence chairman can wield significant political power in Erie County, said he had no idea he was under FBI scrutiny. But he said the fact that the agency refused to advance the investigation proves there should be no question about his activities.

"The bottom line is there was nothing illegal," he said, blaming the entire episode on dissident Independence members who have unsuccessfully attempted to challenge him.

Corrigan, meanwhile, explained the FBI approached him and he cooperated after failing to elicit interest in Orsini from either the Erie County district attorney or the state attorney general. He said he believes others also cooperated with the FBI investigation.

Corrigan said the FBI remains interested in the Independence Party and maintains communication with him. Its interest follows an extensive probe in which agents assigned him a code name and tapped the phone in his bedroom to monitor certain calls, he said.

He was in the midst of arranging a meeting to be recorded, he said, when the FBI pulled out of the probe.

In addition, Corrigan said the FBI secretly photographed dozens of politicians attending a 2006 fundraiser for Orsini's personal committee.

"Tony held a big fundraiser, and they were outside -- hidden or whatever -- taking pictures of everyone they didn't know," Corrigan said. "They brought the pictures to me to identify some of the people and to ask what their connection was."

Corrigan, 71, is a retired engineer and Mensa member who has been active in minor parties for decades. For the past year, he has waged a vicious battle with Orsini over his tactics as chairman of the party, which occupies the third line on the general election ballot and often proves crucial in determining close elections.

The Independence Party has forged a close alliance with the Erie County Democratic Party in recent years that when combined with the Democrats' enrollment advantage of 144,000 over Republicans, has helped notch a string of Democratic successes at the polls.

Orsini and Corrigan have been at odds for some time, including some court battles over disputed Independence Party votes.

Against the backdrop of that public feud, Corrigan said federal agents wanted to determine if the party endorsement could be bought and how Orsini might be involved.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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