Posted: Jan. 7, 2014
NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER
By Celia Cohen
Not one state officeholder was prosecuted over campaign contributions or booze or football tickets.
Sometimes there was insufficient evidence. Sometimes it was prosecutorial discretion.
Sometimes the statute of limitations had run. It was one of those things. This can happen when an investigation lasts longer than two years.
After all that time and upwards of $1 million in billable hours, this is the way the investigation ended, not with a bang but a whimper.
The investigation was led by Norman Veasey, the former state chief justice, who was appointed as an independent counsel to look into hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions and other spoils that were fed suspiciously into the Delaware political system.
The final report was dropped on the Saturday between Christmas and New Year's Day, and it was 101 pages long. If anything screams don't-read-me, this is it.
So who was in there? Mainly Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, and Dave McBride, the Senate's Democratic majority leader, and Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, all of them held out as examples of what has always been the unofficial motto of Legislative Hall in Dover, namely, where's mine?
"I was just disappointed it was as bad as it is," Veasey said.
It was probably too much to expect the investigation to be anything but an ugly stepchild.
It was a castoff from the start. It was the leavings of a federal investigation, a stunner that sent Chris Tigani to prison for two years for laundering campaign contributions through employees at N.K.S. Distributors, his liquor wholesale company, by having employees write checks and then reimbursing them so he could evade contribution limits.
Tigani was listed by the federal Bureau of Prisons as being released last Friday.
With indications that Tigani might have done the same with state contributions, the follow-up was turned over to the state, but there were complications. Beau Biden, as the Democratic attorney general, could not touch it, because he and his father-the-vice-president had both received contributions from Tigani.
Veasey, a Republican back in private practice, was brought in, even though he had contributed to both Bidens. Legally, of course.
Tigani was found to be all over state politics. It should be noted that he was an outlier, doing what nobody else did, and what nobody particularly needs to do in a small state where everybody tends to take care of everybody else, for better and for worse. He was like the guy in the line from the song by Billy Joel, you had to be a big shot, didn't ya.
Tigani bought the Westover Hills house that had belonged to Charlie Cawley, who was one of the biggest shots ever to live here when he ran MBNA. Tigani got a private plane to fly Ruth Ann Minner to a conference in Quebec when she was the Democratic governor. He finagled a sweetheart land deal in Milford. He threw his weight around the legislature.
He greased it all with what the Veasey report said was $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions.
Veasey brought some proceedings to court against Tigani and N.K.S., as well as against two other businessmen who had laundered contributions, for a grand total of more than $660,000 in penalties and fines.
This has let Veasey insist somewhat defensively that the net cost to the state was about $400,000. It still stands, however, that the investigation meant more than $1 million for Weil Gotshal, the law firm where he is a senior partner and brought in colleagues to assist him.
Even though no officeholders were charged, the Veasey report was not pretty.
It depicted Markell as someone with a bad habit for campaign contributions. He had to have more and more. Four million dollars for the first campaign for governor in 2008. Two million dollars for the second campaign. Another $75,000 on the side for "Jack PAC," his political action committee formally known as the Committee for a Better Future, while he was running for governor.
In one case, the Veasey report noted "repeated requests" for contributions from a constellation of entities affiliated with Stoltz, the developer with the controversial projects at Barley Mill Plaza and Greenville Center. Amid lusty protests from the citizenry, Markell stayed on the sidelines.
It is a quid pro quo to take something and do something. This is not what Markell did. He took something but did nothing.
In other cases, the Veasey report found Markell taking tens of thousands of dollars in suspicious-looking contributions, although they turned out to be legal, from two sets of associates identified only as "Entity A Contributors" and "Entity B Contributors."
A check of campaign finance reports appears to show that "Entity A" is the Charmer Sunbelt Group, a liquor distributorship with the United Distributors of Delaware as its local outlet.
Similarly, "Entity B," appears to be the Adler Group, a prominent commercial real estate business in Miami. Adler associates also contributed to Beau Biden, and Michael Adler, the owner, hosted a fund-raiser in 2011 for the Obama campaign with Joe Biden as the draw.
Veasey would not say who they were. "If we wanted to put the names in, we would have," he said.
Dave McBride, the Senate majority leader, also found himself singled out in the report.
It showed that McBride, like Markell, had a habit, except that McBride's habit was to stop by the N.K.S. warehouse in Milford on his way to the beach on Fridays during the summer to pick up free alcohol. Workers there said he stopped "frequently," while McBride said it was two or three times.
The report documented one of those stops, on June 13, 2008, when McBride collected three cases of Corona Light beer and a case of Ketel One vodka -- a case! -- even though N.K.S. did not carry Ketel One and had to buy it retail to have it. All of it was worth more than $300.
Not three weeks later, McBride was one of the senators whose votes killed a bill that would have raised alcohol taxes.
The Veasey report said it could not be proved that McBride was bribed. Still, it is never good for a legislator to have his name in the same sentence as the word "bribe."
Not to mention it did not have to happen. This was a masterpiece of bad timing. As Ralph Moyed, the late political columnist, used to say, "If you take the money and then do the favor, it's a bribe. If you do the favor and then take the money, it's a campaign contribution."
The Veasey report also looked at Dave Sokola, a Democratic senator, who got premier football tickets to Philadelphia Eagles home games from either Tigani or N.K.S. in 2007 and 2008 at a total estimated worth of $800. There was a parking pass in there, too.
Sokola's misdeed was not taking the tickets. It was not reporting them on his annual financial disclosure forms.
There was no proof, though, Sokola knew the tickets were worth more than $250, the threshold for disclosure, and that was that.
So much for the investigation. All it did was follow the money and tell it to have a nice day.