BY MIKE MADIGAN
On December 14, 2012, The Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported that “Federal courts in the Western District of New York appear to grant an unusually high number of sentence reductions for criminals who cooperate, according to data compiled by USA Today.” United States Attorney William C. Hochul stated at the time that “the district as well has some of the longest sentences.”
A review of the data suggests that both are accurate observations.
Significant reductions in sentences occurred in a number of high profile cases, typically involving high powered lawyers. Hochul has taken action to reduce sentencing against defendants while their attorneys contributed to his wife, Kathy Hochul, at the time a congresswoman and now the Lt. Governor.
Those without high profile lawyers — especially those with low income backgrounds, those who had court appointed attorneys, and those who did not concurrently donate to the US Attorney’s wife — received some of the longest sentences. Evidence further suggests that low income defendants commonly receive much longer sentences, especially when compared to similar or more serious cases in this same region. When a high profile lawyer is involved — and concurrently contributing to the US Attorney’s wife’s campaign — the office is willing to go easy.
The disparity in sentencing and its correlation to political contributions to the US Attorney’s wife raises serious concerns about the integrity of Western New York’s federal justice system.
Consider how justice was served in cases handled by Hochul:
The J.T. Wheatfield Drug Gang
The drug running outfit was based out of its namesake Niagara County restaurant, owned and operated by Joseph Tomasino and his family. JT Wheatfield’s was a popular restaurant, and was the primary base of operation of the cocaine dealing operation.
It was operated by four primary defendants: Tomasino, Keith Simmons, Anthony Catone and Tony Lamarand. The organization was characterized by the FBI as being a serious risk to public safety. The FBI accused the gang of fire-bombings, violent beatings, selling kilo-quantities of cocaine weekly, and of recruiting youths both for taking and selling drugs.
Tomasino and Catone were caught on wiretaps coordinating drug sales, Tomasino had in his possession over 1 gram of cocaine at the time of his arrest and he confessed that he, Simmons, Catone, and Lamarand used the bar to sell, distribute, and use cocaine. Catone admitted that he also used another bar, Papa Joe’s, to sell, distribute, and use cocaine.
In the FBI’s press release, it was noted that both Catone’s and Tomasino’s charges carry a maximum penalty of life in prison, a fine of $4,000,000, and forfeiture of their businesses.
On January 24th, 2011, Catone and Tomasino were sentenced to probation and minimal fines. Neither Tomasino and Catone served any prison sentence and both families were allowed to continued to own and operate the businesses where they admitted that they stored, distributed, and sold narcotics.
The Darain Rabatoy Case
On August 26th, 2011, Darain Rabatoy, of Ransomville, was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison followed by three years supervised release for attempting to buy marijuana from a federal agent in a sting operation.
Rabatoy did not have any illegal drugs in his possession, no wiretap evidence against him, no association with any violent drug gangs, and no ownership of a business that was used to store, distribute, and sell drugs (like in the cases of Tomasino and Catone). Rabatoy received prison and Tomasino and Catone remained free and continued to operate the businesses that they used for dealing narcotics.
U.S. Attorney Hochul’s office was responsible for the prosecution of all three of these cases. What caused such apparent disparity in justice in these cases?
The following is a summary of transactions that occurred between the lawyers associated with the Tomasino-Cantone violent narcotics ring and US Attorney William Hochul’s wife, then-Congresswoman Kathy Hochul, concurrent with the prosecution of these cases:
- January 13, 2010. Kathy Hochul received $750 from Dennis C. Gaughan, the defense attorney for Anthony Lamarand. This payment was received one day prior to Mrs. Hochul’s husband’s office acting on Grand Jury indictments of Catone and Tomasino, who were part of the same drug ring case that Lamarand was charged in. Catone and Tomasino were key witnesses in the then-pending Lamarand indictment and sentencing.
- January 13, 2010: Kathy Hochul received a campaign contribution of $500 from the law firm of Lipsitz Green Scime Cambia LLP, the defense firm representing Joseph Tomasino. Tomasino’s indictment was handed down by William Hochul’s office on January 14, 2010 the next day.
- June 16, 2010. Connors Vilardo LLP, Stephan Catone’s lawyer, paid Kathy Hochul’s campaign $250, at a time when Catone remained a key witness in the Tomasino case.
- June 25, 2010. Kathy Hochul received $500 from Lamarand’s lawyer, Dennis C. Gaughan, the day after Lamarand pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to distribute cocaine. Hochul’s husband’s office had agreed to drop two major felony counts against this allegedly violent criminal. Tomasino is a key witness and his case is linked with Lamarand directly.
- July 10, 2010. Keith Simmon’s lawyer Thomas H. Burton donated $2,500 to the Hochul campaign fifteen days after two of the three indictments’ charges were dropped for Lamarand. Tomasino is a key witness and his case is linked with Simmons directly.
- March 4, 2011. Kathy Hochul accepted $5,000 from Lamarand’s lawyer, Dennis C. Gaughan, on the same day that her husband’s office petitioned to delay his sentencing. Tomasino is a witness in this case, just resolved with no prison and no confiscation of his business.
- March 14, 2011. Kathy Hochul’s campaign again accepted a $2,500 payment from the law firm of Thomas H. Burton, representing Keith Simmons. Tomasino is a witness in this case and Tomasino’s case was just resolved with no prison and no confiscation of his business.
- April 1, 2011. Kathy Hochul again accepted $500 from the law firm Connors Vilardo LLP the law firm that represented Stephan Catone. Both Catone and Tomasino’s received only probation for their serious crimes weeks earlier.
- May 19, 2011. Mary Rose Gaughan, wife of Anthony Lamarand lawyer Dennis Gaughan, paid Kathy Hochul’s campaign $1,500. The Lamarand case still being processed by US Attorney Hochul, and Tomasino being a witness in this case.
What caused such a disparity between the Tomasino, Catone and Rabatoy cases?
USA Today and the Democrat & Chronicle reported that federal courts in the Western District of New York granted an unusually high number of sentence reductions during the time period in question, through 2012. As US Attorney Hochul and the Democrat & Chronicle reported, this same district has some the longest sentences as well.
During the period in question there was a clear conflict of interest for the US Attorney and Congresswoman Hochul. Money changed hands on nine separate occasions, from four lawyers and their firms representing the four main players in the JT Wheatfield narcotics network. All four defendants received significant sentence reductions, concurrent with their prosecution.
On four occasions major activity was occurring before US Attorney Hochul at the same time as the donation to his wife Kathy Hochul, within approximately 24 hours. These four transactions occurred over a fifteen month period, with significant time between each, making this correlation unlikely to be coincidental.
This is not the only case where such conflicts of interest exist. When reviewing the contribution history for Kathy Hochul, a pattern of contributions by lawyers can be found in close proximity to major actions taken by the US Attorney’s office between 2008 and 2012 in cases involving those same lawyers.
To retain the office’s legitimacy, it must be held with integrity — even the appearance of a conflict of interest in legal cases that he prosecutes undermines confidence in the entire system. The US Attorney has not maintained this standard, calling into question the influence of politics in his prosecutions.
Mike Madigan is a member of the Grand Island School Board and is a former Republican nominee for United States Congress.