Delaware man pleads guilty to illegally funneling contributions to campaigns

June 9, 2011

A Delaware campaign donor pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to illegally funneling at least $219,000 in contributions to political campaigns, a list that appears to include the failed presidential bid of then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Christopher J. Tigani, the former president of a major Delaware beer distributor, reimbursed bogus donations from employees, family members and friends to state and federal candidates from 2003 to 2008, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday.

Tigani pleaded guilty in federal court in Wilmington, Del., to two counts of violating federal election laws and two counts of tax fraud for lying about his income.

Tigani is a well-known figure in Delaware who has waged a high-profile legal battle with his father for control of the family’s lucrative liquor distribution business, NKS Distributors, which has exclusive state contracts for Anheuser-Busch, Samuel Adams and other major brands.

The younger Tigani — who prosecutors say made $1 million or more a year while president of NKS — filed for bankruptcy this week to halt foreclosure on his 24,000-square-foot mansion, according to news media reports. He claimed up to $50 million in personal debts.

In the election law case, prosecutors say Tigani arranged the bogus campaign donations “to increase his company’s influence over matters of importance to NKS.” The scheme included sham fundraisers, free alcohol for candidates and their supporters at events, and handoffs of bundles of checks to campaign operatives at NKS headquarters, the complaint says.

Tigani also allowed an unidentified federal campaign to use NKS offices for fundraising calls, the complaint says.

The complaint, which was filed under seal last month, does not allege wrongdoing by any of the state or federal candidates who received money from Tigani or his associates. The recipients are identified in the complaint only by pseudonyms.

But dates and other details from the complaint strongly suggest that Biden and Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) were among the candidates who received straw donations from Tigani.

In 2007, prosecutors say, Tigani funneled at least 41 separate donations from 29 donors to “Campaign Committee A,” which match up with contributions to Biden’s presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records. The efforts included an NKS fundraiser that prosecutors described as “a sham.”

Overall, prosecutors said, Tigani arranged more than $70,000 in total contributions to that presidential committee.

“We had absolutely no knowledge of these activities,” said Amy Dudley, a spokeswoman for Biden (D), now the vice president. The Delaware public defender’s office, which is listed in court papers as representing Tigani, did not respond to a telephone message.

The complaint also lists two $500 donations from NKS employees in May 2006 that match donations to Carper in FEC records. A spokesman for Carper said the campaign follows all federal campaign laws and had not been informed of any questionable contributions.

Tigani faces up to five years in prison on each election-law violation and up to three years for each count of tax evasion. Sentencing is set for Sept. 20.

Staff writer Jerry Markon contributed to this report.

Deputy Editor, National Politics
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