WASHINGTON – A defendant who tried to escape fraud charges against him by exerting pressure on a U.S. Attorney’s spouse and candidate for office pleaded guilty today to obstruction of justice for perpetrating the scheme, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division announced today.
James F. Lagona, 52, of Snyder, N.Y., pleaded guilty to a criminal information, filed today, charging him with one count of endeavoring to influence, obstruct and impede the due administration of justice. Lagona entered his guilty plea in Buffalo federal court before Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny. Lagona was arrested pursuant to a criminal complaint on Nov. 15, 2012, and has been detained since his arrest.
Lagona was found guilty of 27 counts of felony mail fraud on Feb. 23, 2011, following a jury trial in the Western District of New York. He was scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 3, 2012, before being arrested on the obstruction of justice charge to which he pleaded guilty today.
During his guilty plea proceeding, Lagona admitted to obtaining a private meeting with a campaign staffer working for U.S. Representative Kathy Hochul of New York, who was then involved in a close race for reelection against her opponent. Lagona also admitted that during the Nov. 2, 2012, meeting – four days before the election – he identified himself as a clergyman, claimed that he had been involved in discussions with the political party of Rep. Hochul’s election opponent, and falsely claimed that the opponent’s party was interested in featuring him in an advertisement or rally to claim wrongful prosecution and religious persecution. He told the campaign staffer that he would instead publicly support Rep. Hochul, if her spouse, Western District of New York U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., dismissed the criminal case against him. The campaign staffer subsequently reported the meeting to the FBI.
Lagona admitted to meeting with the campaign staffer a second time on Nov. 3, 2012. During the meeting, which was covertly recorded by the campaign staffer under the FBI’s supervision, Lagona admitted to specifying that he sought a “quid pro quo” in exchange for refusing to campaign with the party of Rep. Hochul’s opponent and for publicly supporting her instead. Lagona admitted he told the staffer that in exchange he wanted his case dismissed and for no further charges to be brought against him. Following the meeting, Lagona made efforts to follow up with the staffer by phone.
The criminal complaint in which Lagona was originally charged with obstruction, unsealed on Nov. 15, 2012, notes that the criminal investigation revealed no evidence that the campaign staffer, Rep. Hochul, or her campaign ever intended to accept or considered accepting Lagona’s proposal, nor that the proposal was ever communicated to or considered by U.S. Attorney Hochul. The investigation has revealed no evidence that any member of the opposing party ever considered using Lagona during the campaign.
At sentencing, currently scheduled for March 20, 2013, before Chief U.S. District Judge Skretny, Lagona faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney J.P. Cooney of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and investigated by the FBI, Buffalo Division, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Christopher M. Piehota.