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Biaggi Convicted of Accepting Gratuity : Friend Guilty of Offering It; Both Acquitted of Bribery, Conspiracy

September 23, 1987|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A federal court jury Tuesday convicted Rep. Mario Biaggi of accepting two vacations from the former Democratic political boss of Brooklyn but acquitted the 10-term Bronx congressman of more serious charges of bribery and conspiracy.

Biaggi, a former hero policeman and a law-and-order advocate, was convicted of obstructing justice, accepting a gratuity and illegal interstate travel--crossing state lines while committing a crime. His co-defendant and old friend, former Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade H. Esposito, was found guilty of offering gratuities and of interstate travel violations but was found not guilty of conspiracy and bribery. Esposito, 80, was not charged with obstruction of justice.

During the trial, which featured extensive wiretap evidence, prosecutors charged that Biaggi accepted trips to a Florida spa from Esposito in return for helping a failing ship repair company, a client of Esposito's insurance agency.

Outside the Brooklyn courtroom, Biaggi, 69, sporting a silk pocket handkerchief and a pearl-handled cane, sought to minimize his conviction.

"The jury convicted me of tipping," the Democratic congressman said. "I'm not a waiter. I'm a congressman. I'll continue to be a congressman."

Esposito, who at the height of his power ruled the Brooklyn Democratic organization with an iron hand, said he was particularly happy that "there was no charge of corruption."

"That to me was very important," the tough-talking politician said. "There was no harm meant to anybody."

Nevertheless, both men could face prison terms when they are sentenced Oct. 20. The charges of obstruction of justice and illegal interstate travel each can carry a prison term of five years; accepting a gratuity carries a possible two-year sentence.

The accusations of bribery and conspiracy, which the jury of eight men and four women decided not to believe, could have carried sentences of 15 years and five years in prison.

Wedtech Case

But Biaggi still faces other legal problems. He was indicted June 3 on federal charges of racketeering and conspiracy in connection with a scheme to buy political influence involving the Wedtech Corp., a Bronx military contractor.

In the Brooklyn case, prosecutors charged that Esposito paid $7,200 in expenses for Biaggi and a woman companion for two trips to a Florida luxury spa in 1984 and 1985 in return for the Bronx congressman's intervention in trying to get the Navy to speed funds to the Coastal Dry Dock & Repair Corp. and to help persuade city officials to lower the company's utility bill.

The company was facing bankruptcy at the time and argued that it could not compete with other shipyards for military contracts because of high utility rates in New York.

Coastal, which filed for bankruptcy in March, 1986, and is now defunct, was the second-largest client of Esposito's insurance agency.

While deliberating, the jurors asked to hear again 28 of the 50 wiretap tapes presented by prosecutors. During a conversation recorded on Dec. 17, 1984, the defendants discussed one of the Florida trips.

"What else is doing?" Esposito asked.

"By the way, we've been doing wonders for Coastal," Biaggi replied.

Defense lawyers argued that Esposito often gave generous gifts to his friends and that Biaggi, whose net worth was put by his lawyer at more than $2 million, had accepted the trips as gestures to an old friend and not as a bribe.

Biaggi, a former detective who was wounded numerous times in his 23 years on the New York City police force and who went on to become a lawyer, was first elected to Congress in 1968. He has been the subject of several investigations in the past. In 1973, while running for mayor of New York, he denied reports that two years earlier he had taken the Fifth Amendment before a grand jury looking into charges that some congressmen had accepted payoffs for sponsoring private immigration bills.

Refused to Answer

As the 1973 Democratic mayoral primary race gained momentum, the grand jury 's minutes became public and they showed that Biaggi, who was running on a law-and-order platform, had refused to answer 16 questions pertaining to his personal finances. An investigation by the Internal Revenue Service followed, and the congressman acknowledged that he had been questioned by another grand jury looking into allegations of bribery of a judge. No charges were filed in either case.

Biaggi finished third in the primary but continued to run as a candidate of the Conservative Party. He finished last in the mayoral race, won by former Mayor Abraham D. Beame--a product of Esposito's Brooklyn Democratic organization.

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