NEW YORK — Mario Biaggi, a former 19-year congressman whose career ended in disgrace after a pair of corruption convictions, has died. He was 97.
Biaggi died Wednesday at his Bronx home, said Mortimer Matz, his longtime spokesman.
A highly decorated New York City police officer prior to his political career, Biaggi was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1968 from a Bronx district later redrawn to include a portion of Yonkers.
He was easily re-elected nine times, but his political career began unraveling in the mid-1980s amid corruption allegations.
The final blow came in 1988 when he was convicted of extorting $3.5 million in cash and stock from Wedtech Corp., a machine shop that had obtained millions of dollars in no-bid defense contracts.
Biaggi was sentenced to eight years in prison, and ended up serving a little over two. He tried to get his House seat back in 1992, but was unsuccessful.
For Biaggi, the descent into disgrace was rapid and painful after a long career as a popular public servant.
Wedtech was Biaggi’s second felony conviction, coming about a year after his conviction for obstructing justice and accepting an illegal gratuity in the form of a paid Florida vacation.
Biaggi was born in 1917 to a poor Italian stonecutter and his wife. He grew up in East Harlem, working as foreman in a braid factory and as a postal worker before joining the police force in 1942.
Biaggi was wounded 10 times in the line of duty and received 28 citations, including the department’s highest award. An injury suffered stopping a runaway horse left Biaggi with a limp, and he used a cane for the rest of his life.
While still a police officer, Biaggi persuaded the American Bar Association to let him attend law school despite his lack of a college diploma. He graduated from New York Law School at age 47.
He took a job with Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, but was bounced from his post as assistant secretary of state in 1965 after opting to work for the mayoral campaign of Democrat Abraham Beame.
Three years later, Biaggi was elected to the House.
Biaggi never captured the one job he craved: New York City mayor.
In 1973, he was the favorite for the Democratic mayoral nomination, but his candidacy was destroyed by a series of investigations and allegations of lying.
Biaggi was questioned by a grand jury probing allegations of payoffs to congressmen who sponsored certain immigration legislation. When reports surfaced that Biaggi had taken the Fifth Amendment, he ripped them as “a complete hoax.”
He sued to have some, but not all, of the record made public. The tactic backfired when the judge released all the minutes, proving Biaggi had asserted his right to not to incriminate himself.
Biaggi stayed close in later years to other New York political figures including Reps. Charles Rangel and Peter King.
“He was born in Harlem and I never let him forget it,” Rangel said Thursday. “He was a regular guy who came up from the street and became a police officer. He got into trouble and he resigned, but he remained active after he came back home.”
King, a Long Island Republican, said, “As far as I’m concerned he was a New York legend in every respect — in law enforcement, in politics and in the community.”
Biaggi’s wife of 56 years, Marie, died in July 1997. He is survived by two sons, Richard and Mario Jr.; two daughters, Barbara and Jacqueline; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.