He’s a Grateful Dead fanatic who spread propaganda for anti-communist rebels in Central and South America.
He brought MTV’s Rock the Vote concept to Russia and hung out with mobsters there.
He learned hardball tactics from GOP strategist Roger Stone, fought eBay, lost small fortunes, and fled with a parrot to a tugboat off the Florida coast after getting death threats.
And now he’s part of the team working to land Donald Trump the Republican nomination for president in New York State.
But there’s one thing conservative radio talk show host Michael R. Caputo insists he never has been – a rogue CIA agent.
A vetting of Caputo’s life story, including interviews with roughly 20 people who know him, disproves the cloak-and-dagger spy claim made against him. But Caputo certainly has done enough to make the claim seem plausible.
“If I were to run for office,” he said, “my skeletons would come dancing out of the closet in a can-can.”
At 53, Caputo now lives modestly in a rented East Aurora home with his young family. He’s gone from a college student resembling a geeky version of Elvis Costello to becoming a tea-drinking corporate relations specialist with slightly receding salt-and-pepper hair.
Perhaps best known as the campaign manager for Carl Paladino’s 2010 run for governor, Caputo now regularly fills in as a political talk show host on WBEN radio.
And he is now working with Paladino as part of the New York political team trying to organize support to help Trump win the state’s Republican nomination.
Caputo makes a pittance of what he used to. He owes the federal government a huge sum in back taxes. And he irritates local Democrats, who label him a paid attack dog.
But Caputo professes not to care. For once, he’s happy.
“I’m home, finally,” he said.
An admitted small-time thief and juvenile delinquent growing up in the Southtowns, Caputo said his first enounter with Paladino occurred when he accompanied his father to work in the Ellicott Square building and tried stealing change from the blind man running the first-floor convenience store. Paladino caught him, repeatedly kicked him in the legs and threw him out.
After Caputo graduated from high school, his father dropped him off at the Army enlistment station in downtown Buffalo.
“If you come back from the service the same way you’re going in,” Raymon Caputo recalled telling his son, “you’re not welcome in my house.”
The change in him started fast. The day Caputo realized that President Ronald Reagan was responsible for his 10 percent Army raise, he became a Republican. He threw his restless energy to the political right and never looked back.
After leaving the Army in 1983, he enrolled in college. That’s when his name first appeared in The Buffalo News. Stories appeared about his political, pot-stirring efforts at the University at Buffalo, including conservative students’ plans to spy and report on “radical,” liberal professors believed to be “closet Marxists.”
Caputo signed on as a writer for Congressman Jack Kemp in his White House bid. After that campaign failed, he moved on to Central and South America – where he rubbed elbows with Iran-Contra figure Oliver North – doing his part to spread Reagan’s anti-communist doctrine through PR and propaganda.
Caputo was one of half a dozen young “light-skinned gringos” who connected politicians, journalists and other public opinion influencers with rebels and other political allies in Latin America, according to J. Michael Waller, who oversaw Caputo’s work for the now-defunct Council for Inter-American Security.
“We believed in the cause,” Waller said, “and we were willing to work for next to nothing.”
Caputo later employed his media skills with the House of Representatives and the failed George Bush/Dan Quayle re-election campaign. He also took on side projects, like the successful push to resurrect the canceled “Twin Peaks” television series.
“It’s the cutting edge of television,” Caputo told the Associated Press in 1991. “When ABC realizes what they’ve lost, they’re going to look like monkeys.”
Going to Russia
When tumultuous change shook the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, with Russian leaders struggling to build a more democratic and free-market society after more than 50 years of communist rule, Caputo staked out his next adventure.
He moved there in 1994 as a staff member with the U.S. Agency for International Development, describing Moscow as “Paris in the 1920s with automatic weapons.”
Caputo was one of hundreds of Westerners who flocked to the new Russia to advise people there on how democracy works, said David Hoffman, former Moscow Bureau chief for the Washington Post.
“It really was a pioneering time, and not for the faint of heart,” said Hoffman, who traded gossip with Caputo back then.
Caputo took up residence in an upscale artists neighborhood, and lived next to a cafe that he said was owned by the local mafia. It was the kind of place where one could hear soaring opera music in the morning and find a body dumped at night.
Though friendly with senior Kremlin officials, he butted heads with his superiors at the U.S. State Department. The Washington Post reported in 1995 that Caputo, “an obscure adviser to the Russian election commission,” got his phone, fax and office keys confiscated for refusing to support a State Department position to the media.
He thought about returning stateside. But he stayed, heartbroken over the death of Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia but in love with a Russian astrophysics student whom he later married.
He also opened a public relations firm to help Western companies get a foothold in the newly opened country.
“It was the ideal time for someone like Michael to open shop,” said Michael Conforti, who hired Caputo to help get GTECH’s online lottery system established in Russia.
It was also a dangerous time. Business people regularly faced threats and more. Roughly 40 were killed in just one year, but few were foreigners, Hoffman said.
Caputo recalled one night of heavy drinking with someone he was vetting as a potential local partner for GTECH, and unknowingly insulting the mob-connected man. The man’s bodyguards dragged him out the restaurant’s kitchen door, threw him into a car and took him for a ride before they left him unattended and he got away, he said.
Caputo proved adept at navigating the byzantine Russian bureaucracy, Conforti said, but in the end, it didn’t matter. The ruble crashed in the late 1990s. Businesses pulled out, leaving companies like Caputo’s in ruins.
So in 2000, Caputo finally returned to the United States.
He co-founded Rainmaker, a PR firm for budding telecom and Internet companies based in Washington, D.C., but also worked for Russians on this side of the Atlantic. He helped President Vladimir Putin weather U.S. government criticism for taking over an independent TV station.
“I’m not proud of the work today,” he said. “But at the time, Putin wasn’t such a bad guy.”
When Rainmaker failed following the dot-com bust, Caputo took his communications expertise to Allegiance Telecom, a Dallas company fighting to stay in business. That company went bankrupt two years later, and with it went his retirement money wrapped up in Allegiance stock.
Low on money and his marriage to the Russian woman ending, Caputo seemed to run out of steam.
He left Dallas and was loafing on his dad’s couch in Orchard Park when he got a call from his mentor and close friend, Roger Stone. The bare-knuckled conservative strategist told Caputo to join him in Miami Beach.
From there, Caputo launched Michael Caputo Public Relations, the firm he runs today.
When Forbes Magazine correspondent Paul Klebnikov was shot to death in Moscow in 2004, Caputo penned a Washington Post column decrying the “brutal billionaires” of Russia and one in particular, Boris Berezovsky.
Soon after, Caputo said he started getting death threats.â©So he bought a tugboat and armed himself with a .40-caliber Glock. Off the Florida coast for much of the next five years, he let his hair grow, rarely wore shoes and ran his PR office from his boat with a laptop and a phone. He kept a white parrot as company.
His PR stunts included hiring a guy in a chicken suit to stand outside the office of a Miami senator who refused a debate invitation. He also hired women dressed as strippers to bring bad press to a proposed constitutional amendment in Florida.
But Caputo’s most well-known PR work was done on behalf of MercExchange, an online auction outfit that took the corporate giant eBay to court over patent infringements.
“It really turned into a David and Goliath story,” said MercExchange CEO Thomas Woolston. “Then the whole thing came before the Supreme Court, and now the whole industry is looking at your fight.”
Caputo worked to build public sympathy for MercExchange by reducing an arcane legal case to “kitchen table language,” painting eBay as a corporate monster and finding reporters and opinion writers to publish stories about the matter in the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. After a six-year battle, the companies settled.
Caputo left his tugboat for a spell in 2007 when he agreed to consult on a parliamentary campaign in the Ukraine. That’s where he met his second wife, Maryna Ponomarenko.
She insisted he give up politics. He agreed.
Determined to finally set down roots, the couple moved to East Aurora in 2009, and Caputo made plans to join his father’s insurance company.
Caputo immediately broke his promise, and signed on to manage Paladino’s Republican campaign for governor in 2010. Occasional conflicts erupted between the two during and after the campaign. Paladino recalled preparing to speak to Orthodox Jewish leaders in Brooklyn and being given a speech Caputo was supposed to vet. The speech, written by Jewish community leaders, was laced with anti-gay rhetoric. Caputo, who said he was exhausted, didn’t catch any of it.
The backlash was ferocious. Caputo offered to resign, but Paladino kept him on.
Caputo and Paladino are once again friends and working together on the New York for Trump campaign.
“We had our ups and downs on the campaign, but I think of him as a friend because I really think he was trying,” Paladino said. “He’s a good reactor to chaos.”
A taxing business
Caputo’s office sits above a shoe repair shop in East Aurora. Behind his desk, a statuette of Ronald Reagan stands alongside Jerry Garcia’s guitar-wielding figure.
Three employees work for him down the hall, three more in Miami Beach and three in Moscow. He advises clients like Sergio’s, a major Cuban restaurant chain, and Weisbrod Matteis & Copley, a D.C.-based firm handling Superstorm Sandy litigation.
And he started a branding and events company called Zeppelin Communications.
He says he’s not on anyone’s local campaign payroll and does work for the Republican Party free of charge.
Though Caputo says he is a proud American, he owes the U.S. government more than $100,000 in back taxes and penalties and has multiple liens against him. He paid off his back state taxes last year.
Caputo said he did a poor job managing his lucrative PR business from 2003 to 2009, and has since hired professionals to handle his books and to work out a settlement with the IRS.
The large skull ring Caputo wears on his right hand speaks to his roots. He can offer insightful political observations one moment, then in the next, make crude sexual references to a critic’s mother online.
Caputo recently labeled Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz “cowardly” and called a promoter for Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz a “stupid bitch” on Twitter.
Poloncarz said he used to have pleasant conversations with Caputo, before the Republican-controlled Erie County Water Authority awarded Caputo a three-year PR and marketing contract in August worth up to $5,000 a month.
“Since then, he went from saying nice things about me to criticizing me as part of the local Republican Party’s agenda to defeat my administration,” Poloncarz said.
In turn, Caputo has been the target of some creative smear campaigns. The most recent: Caputo is a rogue CIA agent working with a former Taliban ambassador connected to al-Qaida.
A supposedly classified document from 2007 was “leaked” on Twitter two months ago, including the signature of the director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service at the time.
After extensive vetting, The News found the document to be fraudulent. But Gary Berntsen, who worked undercover for the CIA for 24 years, recognized how the document could fool the unwary.
“Think about the effort that someone is going through to discredit this guy,” he said. “It’s a world-class effort to screw Michael Caputo.”
On Sunday mornings, the bells of Immaculate Conception Church call Caputo to 8 a.m. Mass. It takes him 37 steps to reach the church’s door. He counted.
Caputo converted to Catholicism in 2000, when he felt he had lost faith in almost everything. He said his conversion helped him make peace with his restless past.
Home in East Aurora has led to a more relaxed and happy Caputo, observed Stone, his mentor. “He’s gotten much fatter,” Stone joked.
Caputo no longer travels or chases adventure at the same reckless speed. With his wife, Maryna, 32, Caputo is raising three children, ages 14, 3 and 1.
He also is building a relationship with his oldest daughter, 32, who lives in Louisville, Ky. He didn’t even know about her until six years ago, when her mother called him after seeing him in the media.
Caputo’s wife and two youngest children often join him for lunch at his office. On a recent visit, Caputo looked past the crayons and toys sitting by a Trump campaign spreadsheet on his coffee table to tell his wife that a box of Pampers was waiting near the door.