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Tow truck operator, two associates indicted in federal bribery probe

A tow truck company owner and two others were indicted Wednesday as part of an FBI-led investigation into bribery and shakedowns in Buffalo’s lucrative towing business.

Jim Mazzariello Jr., of Jim Mazz Auto Inc., is accused of paying off city police officers as part of a criminal scheme directing accident-scene work to his company.

The grand jury indictment also charges Mazzariello’s son Adam, a company supervisor, and Christopher Mahoney, a manager at Mazz Auto.

The felony charges of bribery and filing false tax returns are the result of an investigation by the FBI, Buffalo police and New York State into police corruption and the role of officers in favoring select tow truck operators.

No officers are charged in the indictment, but Buffalo police officials left the door open to that possibility.

“The investigation is continuing,” Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said Wednesday. “Hopefully, we’ll have more information soon.”

The charges against the Mazzariellos came just 10 months after the FBI led a court-ordered search of Mazz Auto’s operations on Bailey Avenue.

It also came two months after a veteran police officer being investigated for taking bribes killed himself in his home.

“We are looking forward to confronting our accusers,” Steven M. Cohen, James Mazzariello’s defense lawyer, said Wednesday. “These charges are baseless.”

Federal prosecutor Russell T. Ippolito Jr. said he could not comment on the allegations – the U.S. Attorney’s Office is limited in what it can say to the media because of the government shutdown – but his court papers outline a series of alleged criminal acts by the Mazzariellos and Mahoney.

The three men are accused of operating a bribery conspiracy, and the elder Mazzariello also faces charges of filing false tax returns.

The government’s criminal prosecution coincides with increased public scrutiny of the city’s towing operations, a public-private partnership that is ultra-competitive and, in some people’s eyes, corrupt.

As the indictment points out, it wasn’t uncommon at one time for city tow truck operators to race to a crash scene, only to find a competing operator already there.

The city uses private tow truck companies when a police tow truck is unavailable.

The indictment refers to two Buffalo police officers who allegedly took part in the conspiracy but does not mention them by name.

One of those officers, identified as “Officer 1,” is alleged to have taken cash payments from all three defendants between January of 2009 and May of 2012.

The other officer, identified as “Officer 2,” is accused of trying to discourage a Mazz competitor by issuing the tow truck operator a ticket for having tinted windows that exceeded legal shading limits.

The indictment also claims Adam Mazzariello offered to pay a radio dispatcher in the Police Department for each early notification of an auto accident in the city.

The investigation centers around long-standing allegations of police shakedowns of tow truck companies, an accusation Mazz’s lawyer acknowledges is true.

Cohen, who has represented the company for years, says it was Mazzariello who first brought the allegations of corruption to the attention of Buffalo police eight years ago.

Cohen said Mazzariello’s claims were ignored by the city, which chose instead to target him for retribution.

He said the retribution included taking him off the list of city-approved tow truck operators.

“It was Jim Mazzariello who came to the City of Buffalo on seven occasions to get them to put a stop to police officers demanding payments for towing services,” he said.

Shortly after the FBI search in December, Mazz Auto filed a notice of claim against the city alleging the city “engaged in a course of conduct consisting of predatory pricing, monopoly formation for their own benefit, price trusts, price fixing, abuse of authority and public corruption.”

City officials would not comment on Mazz’s allegations, but a source close to the investigation said city officials have not yet seen evidence to back up the accusations.

The investigation into bribes and shakedowns became public in December when the FBI and Buffalo police searched Jim Mazz Auto and again in July when Jeffrey A. Mott, a police officer under investigation, was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Pendleton home.

A Niagara County SWAT Team surrounded Mott’s Paddock Ridge home after receiving reports that he was threatening suicide. He was found dead inside the house.

It’s not clear if Mott was one of the two officers mentioned in the indictment.

The towing business also garnered unwanted attention when tow truck driver Corddaryl Henley was killed inside his truck in May of last year at Walden Avenue and Latour Street.

At the time, there were reports from sources in the business that Henley, a 25-year-old husband and father, may have been the target of a competing tow truck operator upset that Henley was intruding on his business.

There have been no arrests in the case.

The indictment of Mazzariello and the others is the result of an investigation by the FBI; Buffalo police internal affairs; the Internal Revenue Service; the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Criminal Division; the state Department of Taxation and Finance, Criminal Investigations Division; and the state Department of Financial Services, Criminal Investigations Unit.