In the days leading up to the November election, James Lagona offered to lend his influence as a religious leader to the campaign of Rep. Kathleen C. Hochul.
In return, Lagona wanted Hochul’s husband, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., to dismiss his fraud case.
Lagona, who still faces sentencing in the case, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a separate charge of obstruction of justice, a felony that could mean 10 years in prison on top of the 20 years he faces in the fraud case.
“He was concerned about the care of his family,” defense lawyer James DeMatteo said of his client’s motivations. “That’s the entire reason he did this, pure desperation.”
Lagona, as part of his plea deal, admitted approaching one of Kathleen Hochul’s campaign aides on Nov. 2 and offering what prosecutors called a “quid pro quo.”
He told the aide that he would campaign for the Hamburg Democrat and do his best to woo undecided Catholic voters – he’s a self-described Christian mystic and psychic and a leader in the Western Rite Orthodox Catholic Church – and in return Hochul’s husband would have to dismiss his upcoming sentencing for fraud.
A day later, he met with the campaign aide again and repeated his offer.
“This time, the campaign staffer was recording the conversation unbeknownst to Mr. Lagona and at the direction of the FBI,” said J.P. Cooney, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Cooney, who is based in Washington, D.C., appeared before Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny because of William Hochul’s involvement in the case.
DeMatteo said Lagona acted out of concern for his wife and daughter – both are disabled – and his fear that a long prison sentence in the fraud case would leave them without proper care. Lagona was found guilty of taking part in a $5.8 million Ponzi scheme after a two-week federal court trial last year.
He and fellow defendant Ian Campbell Gent were convicted of fraud and conspiracy for their role in an Amherst-based scheme that cheated 90 victims, many of them retirees.
During the trial, Lagona and Gent portrayed themselves as victims and denied knowingly helping Guy Gane and his company, Watermark Financial Services of Amherst.
Gane, who many believe was the mastermind behind the scheme, eventually pleaded guilty to fraud and money-laundering charges and agreed to testify against Lagona and Gent. Gane was sentenced to 13 years in prison last year. Prosecutors say Gane cheated customers of Watermark Financial Services by telling them he was investing their money in valuable waterfront real estate in Maine.