A pay-to-play scheme targeting Buffalo police officers is sending a prominent figure in the tow truck industry to prison for a year.
James Mazzariello Jr., the 63-year old owner of Jim Mazz Auto, admitted bribing officers to gain an advantage over competitors at accident scenes in the city.
In the end, Mazzariello cooperated with the FBI and received a substantial reduction in his sentence even though no police officers were ever charged in the prosecution.
"I'm sitting here scratching my head," U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara said of Mazzariello's reduction in sentencing. "This is very substantial. I don't usually see them this high."
When Arcara asked prosecutors to justify the reduction, they pointed to the five-year statute of limitations for bribery and indicated it would be difficult to prosecute police officers at this point in time.
Nevertheless, they described Mazzariello's information as valuable.
"The defendant's cooperation was extensive and helpful," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Ippolito. "We know of many other officers who were involved."
When asked what Mazzariello's information might lead to, including more convictions or internal discipline, the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment.
During Mazzariello's court appearance, Arcara indicated there were 12 police officers involved in the bribery scheme and asked why none of them was ever charged.
Ippolito would not offer details on the officers' fate except to say that Mazzariello's cooperation was significant enough to warrant a break in his recommended sentence.
Under his plea agreement, Mazzariello faced a maximum of two years in prison. His cooperation led instead to the one-year sentence imposed by Arcara.
The FBI, which led the tow truck investigation, has also 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.
Mazzariello and his son Adam, who was also part of the bribery conspiracy, took plea deals rather than go to trial. The younger Mazzariello was sentenced Thursday to six months in prison.
If the case had gone to trial, 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.
"This was basically a pay to play scheme," Ippolito said. "The defendant was paying police officers to gain a competitive advantage."
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.
"I take full responsibility," Mazzariello told Arcara, his voice breaking with emotion. "I apologize to all the people I hurt. I should have known better."
Mazzariello's court appearance Thursday came just days before Christopher Mahoney, a former Mazz Auto manager, will face sentencing for his role in the bribery scheme.
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.
As part of his agreement with the U.S. Attorneys Office, James Mazzariello pleaded guilty to two felony criminal charges – conspiracy to pay bribes and making a false tax return.
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 was the best available option.