James Mazzariello used an unusual strategy to grow his tow truck business – bribing Buffalo police officers.
Mazzariello, a prominent figure in the Buffalo tow truck industry for three decades, admitted operating a pay-to-play scheme Tuesday as part of a federal plea deal that could send him to prison for two years.
The 62-year-old owner of Jim Mazz Auto appeared in Buffalo federal court and admitted using bribes to gain an advantage over competitors at accident scenes in the city.
His son Adam, 35, also pleaded guilty to taking part in the bribery conspiracy.
"The facts of this case are the reason the FBI's public corruption program exists," said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo. "Not only did the Mazzariellos engage in this corrupt activity in their regular course of business, but they then went on to profit significantly as a result of those bribes."
The bribes ranged from $20 to $50 for each accident and the government believes their use was far more widespread than the 19 bribe payments totaling $500 that are detailed in the Mazzariellos' plea agreements.
"It was definitely a reflection of a larger conspiracy," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell T. Ippolito. "We examined 19 specific motor vehicle accidents and were able to prove in every instance that a bribe occurred."
James Mazzariello pleaded guilty to two felony criminal charges – conspiracy to pay bribes and making a false tax return.
The false tax return conviction reflects his attempt in 2010 to underreport his income by about $191,000, saving himself an estimated $58,000 in taxes that year.
The FBI, which led the tow truck investigation, has stopped short of identifying the officers suspected of taking bribes, although one is believed to be Jeffrey A. Mott.
Mott, a 25-year veteran of the force, was under investigation by the FBI when he was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Pendleton home in July of 2013.
Ippolito would not comment on the involvement of other officers but confirmed the investigation is far from over.
"We take public corruption cases very seriously," he said. "The investigation is ongoing."
The Mazzariellos' guilty pleas before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara came just a week before their four-year old criminal case was scheduled to go to trial.
Defense lawyers Joel Daniels and Herbert L. Greenman pointed to the length of the prosecution and the involvement of other defense lawyers to suggest that a plea agreement at this point was the best available option.
"The case had a long, checkered history," Daniels said. "Mr. Greenman and I were retained late in the game, and we think this resolution is in our clients' best interests."
If the case had gone before a jury, court papers indicate two Buffalo police officers and seven Mazz Auto employees would have testified that Mazz's tow truck drivers offered bribes in return for exclusive information on accidents in the city.
The Mazzariellos' court appearance Monday also came three years after Christopher Mahoney, a former Mazz Auto manager, admitted taking part in the bribery scheme as part of a federal plea agreement.
Mahoney, as part of his plea deal, said the scheme included paying off police officers and continued over a three-year period ending in 2012. He faces a recommended sentence of up to two years in prison.
Mazzariellos' defense lawyers have argued in the past that their clients were the victims of retribution after being one of the first tow truck operators to bring allegations of bribery to the Buffalo Police.
They also wonder why no police officers were ever charged in the case.
The Mazzariellos will be sentenced on Aug. 24.
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