21/09/2020

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Growing Your Income

I Wore a Wire to Probe Biden’s Fundraising

Christopher Tigani was a wealthy beer distributor who relished his close ties to Delaware politicians,...

Christopher Tigani was a wealthy beer distributor who relished his close ties to Delaware politicians, particularly Joe Biden, when the FBI confronted him outside a Royal Farms gas station in September 2010.

Tigani was in trouble. While serving as a bundler for Biden’s aborted 2008 presidential campaign, he had reimbursed his employees for contributions made in their names, a well-worn tactic for circumventing campaign-finance laws.

What happened between that day and Tigani’s 2012 sentencing has never before been revealed: He would wear a wire for the FBI and record people close to the then-vice president, seeking, he said, to confirm his belief that they knew of his reimbursements and investigate whether they, or others close to Biden, engaged in any quid pro quo deals with donors.

Over several months in 2011, Tigani said, his handlers used him to try to elicit cooperation from others closer to the then-vice president and even discussed trying to get him in front of Biden himself while wearing a wire. Tigani said he recorded conversations with former Biden finance chief Dennis Toner as well as a businessman close to Biden and a Biden aide-turned-lobbyist. He said he also sought to develop evidence against other players in Delaware politics.

Ultimately, only Tigani himself faced federal charges.

In interviews with POLITICO, Tigani, now 49, agreed to share the details of his informant work for the first time, in part, he said, because he felt he was left out to dry by the Bidens when revelations about his illegal fundraising for both Joe and Beau, along with other top officials, placed him at the center of a Delaware political scandal a decade ago.

The information Tigani provided to federal investigators was “not actionable” according to a confidential 2012 letter sent from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware to the United States Probation Office detailing his attempted FBI cooperation. Following the federal investigation of Tigani’s fundraising for Biden, Delaware authorities conducted a corresponding probe of Tigani’s donations to state-level campaigns. A special prosecutor appointed by Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who recused himself, brought no charges against politicians or their aides, but warned of “a compelling need to reform the ‘pay to play’ culture out of which the conduct that led to this investigation may have grown.”

At the time of Tigani’s 2011 guilty plea, a spokeswoman for Joe Biden, then the vice president, denied he had any knowledge of Tigani’s crimes. Biden’s 2020 campaign repeated the denial.

“This matter was thoroughly investigated almost a decade ago by the Department of Justice, and there was no finding, or even allegation, of improper behavior by the 2008 campaign,” said Biden spokesman Michael Gwin. A former assistant U.S. attorney involved in the investigation, Robert Kravetz, said it produced no evidence of wrongdoing by the vice president. The FBI declined to comment.

But Tigani’s saga — the story of a businessman so eager to cultivate relationships with the leaders of his small state that he crossed the line into criminality — offers a window on the Delaware political world from which Biden emerged, one in which long-standing family and social ties often mix freely with business and policy-making.

Tigani, whose father played football with Joe Biden in high school, and who himself grew up knowing Beau and Hunter Biden, described a relationship in which he raised funds for the Bidens and then advertised his closeness to the family while navigating the complicated regulatory apparatus connected to owning a liquor distributorship.

He described a series of encounters in October 2007 when he said Joe Biden and his two sons, Beau and Hunter, approached him at an after-party following the Democratic primary debate at Drexel University and asked him to step up his campaign fundraising, before passing him to Toner, who asked him, “How many people do you have who you can trust?”

He also described a 2011 meeting with the Biden aide-turned-lobbyist, part of his attempted FBI cooperation, in which he said he taped the former Senate staffer suggesting that the Bidens and Toner knowingly accepted straw donations from bundlers, a violation of campaign finance law. And Tigani recounted a phone call with Toner in which he said the campaign finance director seemed to know he was being recorded, saying “I don’t even know who else is listening,” before hanging up.

“The agents believed that Toner and Biden knew exactly what was going on with respect to bundling,” Tigani said, but the Bureau was unable to prove it because the men were “too smart.”

In response to written questions, Toner disputed Tigani’s recollections and said he did not know of Tigani’s illegal reimbursements until Tigani pleaded guilty to them in court.

That Tigani went to prison for campaign finance violations related to Biden’s campaign, and that he cooperated with federal investigators, has been known for years. But the details of his attempted cooperation, including the fact that the FBI investigated the Biden campaign, have remained secret until now.

His account is buttressed by documents obtained by POLITICO, including the 2012 letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It states that, on 17 separate occasions, Tigani made recordings of conversations with six different people, including a “high-level official of the Biden for President campaign” and a “former Biden staffer now working as a lobbyist.”

Tigani’s saga provides insight into the political culture from which Biden emerged, the chummy “Delaware Way.” To its proponents, the Delaware Way entails an approach to politics based on long-term relationships, compromise, and civility. It’s a style of governing that comes naturally in a small state. “He was kind of the person who helped create the Delaware Way,” Biden’s former aide and successor in the Senate, Ted Kaufman, recently told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Biden.

Biden himself has touted this style as the path back to national normalcy. “It’s the Delaware Way,” the then-vice president told his hometown paper in 2016, arguing for a return to bipartisan cooperation. “We’ve always gotten along.”

But to its critics, the Delaware Way can look like a culture of favor trading and cronyism. In Tigani’s case, prosecutors defined it in a sentencing filing as “a form of soft corruption, intersecting business and political interests, which has existed in this State for years.”

The idea that Biden practices old-fashioned, relationship-driven politics is the knock he overcame from progressives in the Democratic primary. Claims that Biden is unscrupulous are a central theme of the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, who — having faced impeachment for his efforts to pressure Ukrainian authorities into probing Biden and his son, Hunter — has derided the former vice president as “Quid Pro Joe.”

Tigani’s account reveals the most extensive effort known to date to investigate the question of whether Biden’s inner circle has been complicit in corruption. In the end, a team of federal agents with a confidential informant and a hidden camera could not make that case — even if Tigani says he walked away with an unshakable suspicion that the affable former vice president knows more about the Delaware Way than he lets on.

‘Thanks for all the help’

On a morning in late September, 2010, Tigani left his 24,000-square foot colonial mansion in Westover Hills, near Wilmington — among the finest private residences in Delaware — and pulled into a Royal Farms in nearby Newark to pick up a snack.

On his way back to his car, two men were waiting for him, holding up badges. They introduced themselves as agents of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, and explained they wanted to talk to Tigani about Joe Biden and Ruth Ann Minner, Delaware’s former governor.

The federal agents confronted Tigani about reimbursing others for Biden campaign donations, a practice he said he immediately confessed to. “I told them everything I had done,” he recalled. “I didn’t try to hide it. I didn’t think it was illegal.” The practice of reimbursing others for donations was a common method of circumventing campaign contribution limits in the era before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which legalized unlimited election spending by corporations.

Tigani and the agents remained at the gas station, talking, for the next four hours.

There was a lot to discuss. Tigani’s ties to the Bidens ran deep. His father, Robert, was classmates with Joe at Archmere Academy, a Catholic school in the northeast corner of Delaware, where they played football together in the late 1950s. In the early ’80s, when Tigani was an adolescent, his father and stepmother socialized regularly with Joe and Jill, and Tigani got to know Hunter and Beau, who were about his age.

Their broader social circles remained intertwined into adulthood, even if Tigani and the Bidens were not best of friends — “I’m in the alcohol business, and Beau didn’t drink,” he noted.

But in addition to making him rich, Tigani’s family business, NKS Distributors, gave him reason to stay in touch with Delaware politicians. Alcohol distributors act as legally mandated middlemen between producers and retail stores, as part of a regulatory structure that emerged after Prohibition to prevent consolidation. As players in a heavily regulated industry, distributors have an incentive to remain politically engaged, and Tigani did just that.

He gave generously to politicians up and down the rungs of Delaware politics, mostly Democrats in that deep blue state, and spearheaded a successful 2003 push to legalize Sunday liquor sales.

Delaware Democratic Attorney General candidate Beau Biden, holding his daughter Natalie, greets Gary Linarducci after placing his vote in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006 (AP Photo/Pat Crowe II)
Delaware Democratic Attorney General candidate Beau Biden, holding his daughter Natalie, greets Gary Linarducci after placing his vote in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006 (AP Photo/Pat Crowe II)

When Beau Biden set out on his first campaign for state attorney general, in 2005, Tigani pitched in with fundraising. When Joe Biden mounted his second presidential bid two years later, Tigani made for a natural ally, and set about bundling donations.

In the pre-Citizens United era, bundlers — people who could tap their networks to solicit the maximum allowable contributions from dozens of contacts — played a paramount role in financing presidential campaigns.

In Tigani’s case, he would bundle contributions from NKS employees, their spouses and other associates, and then reimburse them from company funds, a practice that was illegal. Tigani says he knew that the reimbursements were a way of getting around individual contribution limits, but that he had no idea they were criminal. He said he understood reimbursements to be a widespread, accepted practice, and named as an example another prominent Delaware executive who he said was known to regularly reimburse employees for political contributions.

So in late August 2007, Tigani held what the government’s presentence investigation report later called a “sham” fundraiser for Biden, soliciting 17 checks from his employees, only to reimburse them for the donations from company funds.

Tigani disputes the government’s assertion that he held fake events in order to conceal his reimbursements. In reality, he said, Biden campaign staffers would simply swing by NKS headquarters to pick up bundled checks, and that the company would often lay out a spread of coffee and donuts for whoever happened to be in the office that day. He said he and Biden staffers would jokingly refer to the no-frills handoffs as fundraisers.

Tigani’s involvement with the Biden campaign deepened two months later, he said, when he attended the Democratic primary debate at Drexel University as one of 10 personal guests of Biden’s campaign, seated next to Beau’s wife, Hallie.

After the debate — at which a poor showing by Hillary Clinton made more of a mark than anything the Delaware senator said — the Biden crew retired for its after-party to Smokey Joe’s, a campus dive bar near the University of Pennsylvania that was once name-checked by Gerald Ford in a Penn commencement address.

At the Smokey Joe’s after-party, Tigani recalled, the Delaware senator approached him with a big ask: The campaign was surging into contention in Iowa and needed $100,000 for billboards in the state. Tigani told Biden he could deliver.

Later that evening, Tigani recalled, Biden’s sons, Hunter and Beau, a Penn graduate, broached the contribution again. When Tigani reiterated his willingness to help out, he said, the brothers passed him off to the campaign’s finance director, Dennis Toner, who had also served as Biden’s deputy chief of staff in the Senate.

Tigani said that when he discussed the contribution with the Biden brothers and Toner, he made reference to money allotted in his company budget for such contributions.

And he said that when he discussed the contribution with Toner at Smokey Joe’s, the finance director asked him, “How many people do you have who you can trust?” Tigani said he responded, “All of them.”

Tigani said he took Toner’s question as an indication the finance director knew the bundler was working with his employees to circumvent contribution limits. Toner disputed Tigani’s account, saying he has never asked Tigani any question along these lines.

Though the bulk of his bundled contributions came before October, Tigani said he became more involved with the campaign after the Drexel debate, participating in several calls with Biden’s finance team and other top outside fundraisers, according to emails he provided. A pre-sentence investigation report later filed by federal prosecutors also notes Tigani’s participation in conference calls with the campaign to plan fundraising.

In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, the campaign continued to lean on Tigani for support. On December 12, a Biden staffer emailed Tigani’s assistant with a list of NKS employees, noting how much money they had given to date and whether their significant other had given, according to the pre-sentence investigation report. Within about a day, according to the report, Tigani had collected six checks for the Biden campaign from NKS employees listed in the email.

Tigani said he considers the speed with which members of the Biden campaign — as well as other politicians and campaigns he raised funds for — expected to collect bundled donations to be another sign that they were complicit in straw donations. “They ask to pick up checks the very next day,” he said. “If you’re really going to go out and solicit other people to give their own money, it takes a while. If you’re going to use your own money, it doesn’t take any time.”

As the first caucuses drew near, Biden himself emailed Tigani, writing, “I know you did a tremendous amount last week, thank you. As we close in on Iowa, we are trying to get any and all contributions still outstanding into our headquarters by COB tomorrow. At your convenience, could you please let me know if you believe you will be able to collect any checks by COB tomorrow. If so, it would go a long way towards helping us increase our media buy in Iowa. I am on the ground here now, and with the cash we can surprise a lot of people.”

Biden concluded his note with “Thanks for all the help, I wont forget it” and signed it “Joe.”

In total, Tigani made $72,000 in illegal contributions to the Biden campaign through straw donors, according to the report, but the Delaware senator never hit his stride. Biden placed fifth in Iowa in early January and promptly dropped out.

Tigani remained in the senator’s orbit: Later that month, Biden sent Tigani an impersonal email, attaching a POLITICO article about his post-campaign return to the Senate.

Within days of Barack Obama selecting the Delaware senator as his running mate in August, Tigani wrote an email to executives at Anheuser-Busch, touting his ties.

“I was the number one fundraiser for [Biden]’s bid, and will play a role in his new campaign as well as his son’s role as a future senator,” Tigani wrote in the August 29 email, which later emerged in court proceedings. “They are very good and close friends, and I know we can take advantage of that role as needed.”

Tigani said that around this time he had been seeking to set up a meeting with Biden for beer industry executives, but that those efforts were derailed by a dispute with his father, Robert, over control of the family business.

Confronted later by the government with his boast to his fellow beer executives, Tigani backed off the claim that he could call in favors with the Bidens. But as Biden’s fortunes rose, Tigani continued to enjoy the sort of special access that is typical of big donors. He attended Biden’s vice presidential debate against Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in St. Louis in October and Obama’s inauguration festivities the following January, where he said he exchanged pleasantries with the new vice president at a private event for donors.

A fateful encounter with the FBI

All was not well, however. Tigani’s dispute with his father over the family business escalated into a legal battle, and the summer after the inauguration, Robert Tigani’s side alleged that Christopher had mishandled company money.

The family court battle also opened Tigani’s relationships with politicians up to scrutiny, starting with former Gov. Minner. In April 2010, the News Journal, a Delaware newspaper, relying on flight records that emerged in litigation, reported that, while in office, Minner had flown from Wilmington to Quebec City with Tigani and a lobbyist on a private jet Tigani had chartered.

Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner gives her final State of the State address in the House Chambers at Legislative Hall, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008, in Dover, Del. (AP Photo/The News Journal, Bob Herbert)
Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner gives her final State of the State address in the House Chambers at Legislative Hall, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008, in Dover, Del. (AP Photo/The News Journal, Bob Herbert)

The paper soon followed up with an investigation by reporter Maureen Milford — the primary local chronicler of Tigani’s saga — alleging that Tigani had gotten a “sweet deal” in leasing state land to build an NKS warehouse during Minner’s administration.

Tigani disputes that characterization of the deal, but the heat was now on. In September, the feds surprised him at the Royal Farms gas station.

A month later, Beau Biden’s office sued NKS, seeking to reduce the term of the lease from 66 years to five, alleging that the state had intended to agree to the shorter term all along, and that the 66-year-term was the result of a “scrivener’s error.”

“No one should be able to benefit from a mistake at the expense of the citizens, especially in a public lease,” Beau Biden said in announcing the suit.

Tigani’s gas station encounter had left him with the impression that he was not a target, but in November, while he was traveling in New Jersey, he said he received a call from an FBI agent asking him to return home. When he arrived, agents were waiting in his driveway and handed him a target letter, an official notification that the government intended to prosecute him. He said he broke down in tears and that agents offered to take away the gun he kept in his house so that he would not kill himself, but he declined.

In December, the News Journal reported that the FBI was investigating the land deal — Tigani and Minner confirmed to the paper they had been questioned — and that several people had testified before a grand jury.

In February 2011, Tigani retained Abbe Lowell, then with the firm Mcdermott Will & Emery. The star criminal defense attorney — who went on to represent former South Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Jared Kushner — had bad news for his new client.

Tigani recalled Lowell telling him, “Chris, normally I’d say, ‘Yeah, we want to take your case.’ But you already sat down with the FBI and told them everything. I don’t even talk to the FBI in court. I don’t even say hi to them in court.”

Tigani, who had been fired from his job at NKS, was also running out of money for high-priced lawyers. But, he recalled, before parting ways with Lowell, the attorney brokered a meeting for Tigani with the Justice Department. Lowell declined to comment.

At the U.S. attorney’s office in Wilmington, Tigani and a public defender met with acting U.S. Attorney David Weiss, Kravetz, and FBI agents. They asked Tigani to help them investigate possible political corruption.

Tigani said he had reservations. He believed some of the government’s suspects were innocent and some of their theories — including one about Tigani’s unsuccessful efforts to broker a meeting between the vice president and liquor distributors — were wrong. “They loosely connected Sunday liquor sales, a land deal and a meeting with Joe Biden,” he recalled.

The feds also thought they would find outright bribery in Delaware’s politics. He said the agents believed their investigation could ultimately lead them to Biden, Biden’s longtime ally Minner and then-governor Jack Markell, who was less firmly entrenched in the state’s Democratic establishment. “They thought at least on the state level they were taking bribes, and on the federal level they were complicit, and that’s how it works,” Tigani recalled.

Markell told POLITICO that he never heard from federal investigators about the matter and was not aware that they had expressed any interest in him. Minner did not respond to a request for comment.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, right, and Col. Don Bevis, left, await the arrival of President Barack Obama on Air Force One at New Castle Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Del., Saturday, June 6, 2015, before attending a funeral for Beau Biden. Biden, the eldest son of Vice President Joe Biden, died of brain cancer May 30 at age 46. (AP Photo/Emily Varisco)
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, right, and Col. Don Bevis, left, await the arrival of President Barack Obama on Air Force One at New Castle Air National Guard Base in New Castle, Del., Saturday, June 6, 2015, before attending a funeral for Beau Biden. Biden, the eldest son of Vice President Joe Biden, died of brain cancer May 30 at age 46. (AP Photo/Emily Varisco)

Tigani said he did not share the agents’ belief that bribery was taking place and maintained that he gained little influence in return for his contributions. “Tigani…explained to agents that he made these political contributions in an effort to gain access, but that he never actually received such access or sought to take advantage of the relationship,” prosecutors later wrote in a court filing related to his sentencing. But Tigani said he acknowledged the existence of a pay-to-play culture in Delaware politics — in which gifts and contributions allow businesspeople to curry favor with officials — and he believed politicians and their staff were complicit in the election law violations being committed to fund their campaigns. Mostly, he was eager to reduce the time he spent in prison away from his two young children.

He agreed to serve as a confidential informant, taping phone calls and wearing concealed recording devices in meetings with Delaware political figures — ranging from small-time local lobbyists to associates of the sitting vice president.

The agents planned to have Tigani start small, he said, getting comfortable with the equipment and his role, during interactions with low-level players, before working his way up to bigger targets.

Wearing a wire

Tigani’s first undercover outing did not go well. In mid-March he was dispatched to Dover Downs, a hotel, casino and horse-racing complex, where he was to meet with several state legislators and lobbyists at a bar, Doc Magrogan’s, and draw them out on the inner workings of Delaware politics.

Beforehand, he went to the FBI office in Dover, where he spent two hours working with his handlers — one female and two male FBI agents — on a script to draw out the subjects.

He learned that he’d be accompanied on the assignment by the female agent, who would pose as his girlfriend. Tigani recalled that when he remarked to one of the handlers that the ruse was plausible because the woman was his type — brown hair, brown eyes — the handler responded, “We know. That’s why we picked her.” Agents had researched Tigani’s prior love interests in order to cast the operation.

“Jesus Christ. Don’t you guys have anything better to do?” Tigani recalled responding.

His handlers taped a wire on him, and cut up his shirt to insert a small camera where one of his buttons had been.

In a brief back-and-forth, agents assured Tigani the camera sticking out of his shirt was not as conspicuous as he thought it was. Then, it was off to the races.

Inside the bar at Dover Downs, Tigani felt nervous and uncomfortable. He excused himself to go to the bathroom, where, after momentarily forgetting about his wire, he was overcome by a sudden jolt of self-awareness. “It’s all just hitting me that these guys are listening to me going to the bathroom,” he recalled.

Back at the bar, he balked at drawing the subjects into incriminating conversations, believing the bureau was barking up the wrong tree. “They tried to manufacture a case against people who really didn’t know anything,” Tigani said.

His handlers were not pleased with that first performance, but Tigani continued to set up calls and meetings at their direction, starting with a local businessman who had somehow popped up on the bureau’s radar. Tigani would meet with agents to debrief on his conversations at out-of-the-way locations, including at a McDonald’s and in the small town of Smyrna, north of Dover, according to a 2011 email in which he recorded a partial log of the hours he put into his cooperation.

Evidence of bribery schemes, if any existed, proved elusive, but the investigation picked up steam later that spring, when Tigani got together with a local lobbyist. The lobbyist was a former Biden Senate staffer and a friend of both Tigani’s and the Biden sons. Tigani described his interactions with the lobbyist on the condition that the person not be named, because Tigani said he believed the person had done nothing wrong.

Tigani said that during a social get together he drew the lobbyist out on the practice of bundlers exceeding donation limits through the use of straw donors.

Tigani recalled pushing the lobbyist on whether Biden, his sons, Toner and the rest of the campaign finance operation were aware of the use of straw donors. “How is it that these people don’t know?” he recalled asking.

“Of course they know,” he said the lobbyist responded. “Of course they know. That’s why they call you.”

“It was a ‘come on, you can’t be serious’ kind of answer,” Tigani recalled. “Of course they know.”

Tigani said he was excited by the breakthrough, but he had neglected to record the conversation. So, a short while later, he said he arranged to meet with the lobbyist in the wood-paneled bar room at the Columbus Inn in Wilmington. This time, wearing a wire, Tigani said he elicited the same admissions from the lobbyist on tape.

Tigani said he did not press the lobbyist to provide details of how he knew this to be true, because the lobbyist was so close to the Bidens that there was no reason to doubt his authority.

In an email, the lobbyist wrote that he was not involved in campaign fundraising, “nor was I ever in a position to speak about [the Bidens’] campaign operations.” The lobbyist praised Biden’s integrity, saying, “I know he never would have tolerated any illegal behavior from supporters or donors.” The lobbyist did not respond to follow-up questions.

Another former Biden aide expressed skepticism that the finance team was aware of bundlers making straw donations or actively sought illegal contributions.

The former aide, who was involved in fundraising for the 2007 presidential campaign and spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the campaign as “starved for cash” and its fundraising as “incredibly anemic.” The finance team, he said, was in a difficult position, because its candidate was not interested in cultivating donors.

“Biden ain’t going to call anybody,” the former aide said. “He hates having to kiss anyone’s ass.” But, the former aide said that, to his knowledge, Toner and other fundraising staff never resorted to illegal methods. “They were always on the up and up about it,” he said.

Toner said he never sought out bundlers who could reimburse donors or had knowledge of bundlers engaging in indirect forms of reimbursement. He said he did not know of Tigani’s crimes before Tigani pleaded guilty to them.

For the investigators, Tigani recalled, the conversations with the lobbyist represented a turning point. His handlers turned their attention from possible bribery to the Biden campaign and its possible complicity in election law violations. “When I confirmed with him that yes in fact they do know about it and they know about it with a lot of other people and they target a lot of other people in my situation to do the same exact thing,” he said. “That’s when we started to pursue that angle more aggressively.”

Because Tigani was already under heavy press scrutiny, he said, his handlers did not push him to set up a prearranged meeting with the vice president, instead looking for opportunities to record more spontaneous encounters with Biden.

“I did try to go to places where he was,” Tigani recalled. “I know that he had a couple of scheduled events when he was going to be in Delaware where we were going to try to make a chance meeting.” But Tigani said he was never able to swing an encounter with Biden, instead settling for others closer than he to the vice president, whom his handlers hoped to use him to incriminate and then secure cooperation from others in Biden’s orbit.

“What they used to say all the time was, ‘We follow the evidence where it takes us.’ And the idea is to get one person implicated and then they implicate the next person,” he said. “The idea was to see how high up the chain they could go.”

‘Hi to anyone else who is listening’

On June 6, Tigani made calls to Toner, the lobbyist and a prominent Delaware businessman who was a fellow Biden donor, according to the 2011 email in which he logged his informant work.

United States Postal Service Board of Governors member Dennis Toner arrives for a USPS first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony for the Gregory Peck forever stamp at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif., Thursday, April 28, 2011. It features Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film
United States Postal Service Board of Governors member Dennis Toner arrives for a USPS first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony for the Gregory Peck forever stamp at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif., Thursday, April 28, 2011. It features Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film

Tigani’s first attempts to contact Toner failed, he recalled. “Toner was hard to get on the phone because he’s smart,” Tigani said. But on June 7, the two had a phone conversation, according to Tigani’s log.

On the call, Tigani said he told Toner that the press was starting to sniff around his relationship with the campaign. “The premise was that the newspaper is asking me about these contributions. You guys obviously know about this,” Tigani recalled. He said Toner responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chris. I don’t even know who else is listening on the phone.”

The conversation lasted only a minute or two, according to Tigani. “I said, ‘Remember when we were at Drexel?’ He said, ‘I remember, but I don’t have anything else to say about it.’”

Toner’s apparent awareness that he was being recorded came as a blow to the FBI agents on the case, Tigani said, and brought about the beginning of the end of his attempted cooperation.

The day after the call, FBI agents visited Toner at his home to ask him about Tigani and notify him that he might be called to testify before a grand jury, which he later did.

On June 9, Tigani pleaded guilty to two charges related to his Biden campaign bundling: one count of making an illegal corporate contribution to a federal campaign committee and one count of making illegal conduit campaign contributions. He also pleaded guilty to two tax evasion charges.

When news of the guilty plea broke, a Biden spokeswoman distanced the vice president and his campaign from Tigani, saying, “We had absolutely no knowledge of these activities.”

Though his case was now public, Tigani’s informant work was not quite over, shifting, he said, to focus on the businessman close to Biden, but Tigani’s calls with the businessman went nowhere.

By summer, Tigani’s role in the investigation was petering out. The last item in the log records a meeting with one of his handlers on July 15.

In February 2012, as Tigani awaited sentencing, the Justice Department officials overseeing his case, Weiss and Kravetz, wrote to Walter Matthews, an official at the United States Probation Office, to detail Tigani’s informant work.

The letter, obtained by POLITICO, states that Tigani’s attempted cooperation lasted close to a year and entailed 12 meetings with FBI agents. The Justice Department officials wrote that Tigani had recorded telephone and in-person conversations on 17 separate occasions with six people, including “a high-level official of the Biden for President campaign”; “a former Biden staffer now working as a lobbyist” and “a prominent Wilmington businessman.”

The letter states that Tigani’s attempted cooperation did not lead to charges against others because some of the information he provided pertained to activities that were outside the statute of limitations, some of it related to conduct that was not a federal crime, and some of it could not be corroborated.

“The information provided by defendant was valuable, however, to the extent that it permitted federal agents to compile detailed historical information regarding election offenses and ‘soft corruption’ in Delaware state government over nearly a decade, which included conduct allegedly committed by federal and state officeholders and/or their campaigns,” the letter stated. “Such information will provide federal agents with a frame of reference for future public corruption investigations in this State.”

A footnote, alluding to the voluminous coverage of Tigani’s travails in the local papers, states, “Defendant’s status as a Delaware tabloid celebrity likely hampered his ability to procure admissions during recorded conversations. For example, one subject who was recorded by defendant stated at the end of the call, ‘Hi to anyone else who is listening.’”

Matthews declined to comment. Kim Reeves, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Wilmington — where Weiss returned to serve as U.S. attorney in 2018 — also declined to comment.

In an email, Kravetz, whose work for the Justice Department ended this month, reiterated the government’s finding that Tigani’s donations to Biden did not buy him access. “There was no corroborating evidence that anyone in the campaign engaged in criminal conduct,” said Kravetz, now a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. “At no time was there any basis to believe that the Vice President engaged in any wrongdoing.” Kravetz declined to comment on the specifics of Tigani’s attempted cooperation.

In March 2012, Tigani was sentenced to two years in federal prison, and ordered to report to Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. In December, he was transferred to a prison in Delaware and arraigned on nine state charges, to which he pleaded not guilty.

The following May, Tigani pleaded guilty to three of the state counts, receiving probation. At the sentencing, the judge, William Carpenter, expressed his view that other players were escaping justice. “It’s unfortunate you are the only person standing here,” Carpenter told him, according to the News Journal. “It’s unfortunate the investigation has not led to others.”

A ‘pay to play’ culture

The question of whether illegal activity extended beyond Tigani hung over Delaware politics from the moment he entered his guilty plea in June 2011.

Soon after, federal authorities referred evidence of possible state crimes unrelated to Biden’s presidential campaign to the Delaware attorney general’s office. Beau Biden recused himself and appointed E. Norman Veasey, a former chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, to conduct a special counsel’s investigation.

In July 2011, the News Journal reported that Veasey had given thousands of dollars to the campaigns of both Joe and Beau Biden, and that his firm — Weil, Gotshal and Manges — ranked among the top sources of donations to the vice president’s recent campaigns. “I give to a lot of campaigns,” Veasey told the paper.

As Veasey undertook his probe, more prosecutions were slow to materialize. In September 2013, the month Tigani left prison for a halfway house, prosecutors finally nabbed another conviction. Dover developer Michael Zimmerman pleaded guilty to a state charge that he made illegal donations to Markell’s 2008 campaign. Another businessman entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the state over charges that he reimbursed employees for donations to Markell.

In December, Veasey issued his report, which identified “a compelling need to reform the ‘pay to play’ culture out of which the conduct that led to this investigation may have grown. In addition to the reimbursement schemes, the investigation identified a widespread practice of gifts and political contributions to candidates and elected officials from which a reasonable person could infer that the gifts or contributions were intended to curry favor with elected officials.”

The Veasey report listed 19 politicians in the state who had received straw donations from Tigani, including Beau Biden. (The federal pre-sentence investigation report found Tigani made $9,600 in unlawful contributions to Beau in 2005).

Beyond the three businessmen who had already faced legal consequences, the report did not recommend further charges.

The report explained that investigators declined to pursue cases against politicians or their aides, saying they denied any knowledge of illegal reimbursement schemes and that investigators did not find a sufficient basis to pursue that avenue.

“Although some witnesses made vague references or speculated to the effect that candidates or their agents knew about or suggested reimbursements, investigators did not find credible evidence to support a charge,” the report said.

The report also acknowledged the shifting landscape of campaign finance. Since Tigani had committed his campaign finance violations, the Citizens United ruling had made unlimited corporate contributions to political action committees legal, giving companies permission to circumvent the campaign contribution limit on a scale much grander than his five-and-six-figure bundled contributions. The report noted that the proliferation of political action committees in recent years removed much of the motive for engaging in straw donor schemes.

It concluded by recommending a slate of modest reforms.

Delaware Republicans decried the report — which landed between Christmas and New Year’s — as a cover-up, arguing that prosecuting a couple of donors would do little to change the state’s political culture.

Tigani left the halfway house in January 2014, financially devastated by years of legal fights. After his release, he said, a third party, whom he declined to name, informed him that his handlers had tried and failed to flip the lobbyist. Tigani said he was told that agents went to the lobbyist’s home and played him a tape of his conversation with Tigani, but that the lobbyist lawyered up and refused to cooperate.

“They discussed charging him but he had not actually committed a crime, he just had knowledge of a crime,” Tigani said he was told, “so the investigation had nowhere left to go.”

He said the lobbyist — who did not respond to a question about interactions with the FBI — no longer speaks to him.

Tigani has kept a low profile since leaving prison, and he said he wanted to make clear he was not seeking publicity. A POLITICO reporter reached out to him over Facebook messenger in August 2019 to request an interview for an article published later that month. Tigani, who said he rarely logs onto Facebook, did not respond to the message until eight months later, and he agreed to a phone call about the Delaware political scene. On the call, he described his informant work off the record, and several weeks later he agreed to go on the record.

Tigani said he wanted to tell his story in part to highlight its redemptive aspects, especially the fact that he used his time in prison to learn the law, and that since his release he has been representing himself in the ongoing legal battle over control of his family business, going toe-to-toe with high-paid lawyers without the benefit of any formal legal education.

Tigani, who has expressed support for Trump on social media, said he also wanted to tell his story because he felt the Bidens had abandoned him, calling them “fair weather friends.” For the first time, he said, he will not be voting for Biden in November.

He said he also wanted to share his side of the story in full because he felt unfairly scapegoated by media coverage and prosecutors for participating in a political culture that was widespread in Delaware. He said he is irked by the feeling that politicians benefit from an ability to maintain plausible deniability while others take the fall for law-breaking.

“Nothing ever happens to them because why would it?” he said. “Why would they admit that they knew what was going on when they can deny it and nobody can prove it otherwise?”

Tigani said he last saw Biden in May 2014, after his release from prison. The two encountered each other at Founders Day, an annual celebration at the Tatnall School, a private school attended by Tigani’s kids and some of Biden’s grandchildren.

“He came over to me and gave me the Biden double handshake and he said, ‘Chris, I hope everything’s going well with you,’ and I said, ‘Couldn’t be better, Mr. Vice President. Couldn’t be better.”