Over several months in 2011, Tigani said, his handlers used him to try to elicit cooperation from others closer to the then-vice president and even discussed trying to get him in front of Biden himself while wearing a wire. Tigani said he recorded conversations with former Biden finance chief Dennis Toner as well as a businessman close to Biden and a Biden aide-turned-lobbyist. He said he also sought to develop evidence against other players in Delaware politics.
Ultimately, only Tigani himself faced federal charges.
In interviews with POLITICO, Tigani, now 49, agreed to share the details of his informant work for the first time, in part, he said, because he felt he was left out to dry by the Bidens when revelations about his illegal fundraising for both Joe and Beau, along with other top officials, placed him at the center of a Delaware political scandal a decade ago.
The information Tigani provided to federal investigators was “not actionable” according to a confidential 2012 letter sent from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware to the United States Probation Office detailing his attempted FBI cooperation. Following the federal investigation of Tigani’s fundraising for Biden, Delaware authorities conducted a corresponding probe of Tigani’s donations to state-level campaigns. A special prosecutor appointed by Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who recused himself, brought no charges against politicians or their aides, but warned of “a compelling need to reform the ‘pay to play’ culture out of which the conduct that led to this investigation may have grown.”
At the time of Tigani’s 2011 guilty plea, a spokeswoman for Joe Biden, then the vice president, denied he had any knowledge of Tigani’s crimes. Biden’s 2020 campaign repeated the denial.
“This matter was thoroughly investigated almost a decade ago by the Department of Justice, and there was no finding, or even allegation, of improper behavior by the 2008 campaign,” said Biden spokesman Michael Gwin. A former assistant U.S. attorney involved in the investigation, Robert Kravetz, said it produced no evidence of wrongdoing by the vice president. The FBI declined to comment.
But Tigani’s saga — the story of a businessman so eager to cultivate relationships with the leaders of his small state that he crossed the line into criminality — offers a window on the Delaware political world from which Biden emerged, one in which long-standing family and social ties often mix freely with business and policy-making.
Tigani, whose father played football with Joe Biden in high school, and who himself grew up knowing Beau and Hunter Biden, described a relationship in which he raised funds for the Bidens and then advertised his closeness to the family while navigating the complicated regulatory apparatus connected to owning a liquor distributorship.
He described a series of encounters in October 2007 when he said Joe Biden and his two sons, Beau and Hunter, approached him at an after-party following the Democratic primary debate at Drexel University and asked him to step up his campaign fundraising, before passing him to Toner, who asked him, “How many people do you have who you can trust?”
He also described a 2011 meeting with the Biden aide-turned-lobbyist, part of his attempted FBI cooperation, in which he said he taped the former Senate staffer suggesting that the Bidens and Toner knowingly accepted straw donations from bundlers, a violation of campaign finance law. And Tigani recounted a phone call with Toner in which he said the campaign finance director seemed to know he was being recorded, saying “I don’t even know who else is listening,” before hanging up.
“The agents believed that Toner and Biden knew exactly what was going on with respect to bundling,” Tigani said, but the Bureau was unable to prove it because the men were “too smart.”
In response to written questions, Toner disputed Tigani’s recollections and said he did not know of Tigani’s illegal reimbursements until Tigani pleaded guilty to them in court.
That Tigani went to prison for campaign finance violations related to Biden’s campaign, and that he cooperated with federal investigators, has been known for years. But the details of his attempted cooperation, including the fact that the FBI investigated the Biden campaign, have remained secret until now.
His account is buttressed by documents obtained by POLITICO, including the 2012 letter from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It states that, on 17 separate occasions, Tigani made recordings of conversations with six different people, including a “high-level official of the Biden for President campaign” and a “former Biden staffer now working as a lobbyist.”
Tigani’s saga provides insight into the political culture from which Biden emerged, the chummy “Delaware Way.” To its proponents, the Delaware Way entails an approach to politics based on long-term relationships, compromise, and civility. It’s a style of governing that comes naturally in a small state. “He was kind of the person who helped create the Delaware Way,” Biden’s former aide and successor in the Senate, Ted Kaufman, recently told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Biden.
Biden himself has touted this style as the path back to national normalcy. “It’s the Delaware Way,” the then-vice president told his hometown paper in 2016, arguing for a return to bipartisan cooperation. “We’ve always gotten along.”
But to its critics, the Delaware Way can look like a culture of favor trading and cronyism. In Tigani’s case, prosecutors defined it in a sentencing filing as “a form of soft corruption, intersecting business and political interests, which has existed in this State for years.”
The idea that Biden practices old-fashioned, relationship-driven politics is the knock he overcame from progressives in the Democratic primary. Claims that Biden is unscrupulous are a central theme of the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, who — having faced impeachment for his efforts to pressure Ukrainian authorities into probing Biden and his son, Hunter — has derided the former vice president as “Quid Pro Joe.”
Tigani’s account reveals the most extensive effort known to date to investigate the question of whether Biden’s inner circle has been complicit in corruption. In the end, a team of federal agents with a confidential informant and a hidden camera could not make that case — even if Tigani says he walked away with an unshakable suspicion that the affable former vice president knows more about the Delaware Way than he lets on.
‘Thanks for all the help’
On a morning in late September, 2010, Tigani left his 24,000-square foot colonial mansion in Westover Hills, near Wilmington — among the finest private residences in Delaware — and pulled into a Royal Farms in nearby Newark to pick up a snack.
On his way back to his car, two men were waiting for him, holding up badges. They introduced themselves as agents of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service, and explained they wanted to talk to Tigani about Joe Biden and Ruth Ann Minner, Delaware’s former governor.
The federal agents confronted Tigani about reimbursing others for Biden campaign donations, a practice he said he immediately confessed to. “I told them everything I had done,” he recalled. “I didn’t try to hide it. I didn’t think it was illegal.” The practice of reimbursing others for donations was a common method of circumventing campaign contribution limits in the era before the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which legalized unlimited election spending by corporations.
Tigani and the agents remained at the gas station, talking, for the next four hours.
There was a lot to discuss. Tigani’s ties to the Bidens ran deep. His father, Robert, was classmates with Joe at Archmere Academy, a Catholic school in the northeast corner of Delaware, where they played football together in the late 1950s. In the early ’80s, when Tigani was an adolescent, his father and stepmother socialized regularly with Joe and Jill, and Tigani got to know Hunter and Beau, who were about his age.
Their broader social circles remained intertwined into adulthood, even if Tigani and the Bidens were not best of friends — “I’m in the alcohol business, and Beau didn’t drink,” he noted.
But in addition to making him rich, Tigani’s family business, NKS Distributors, gave him reason to stay in touch with Delaware politicians. Alcohol distributors act as legally mandated middlemen between producers and retail stores, as part of a regulatory structure that emerged after Prohibition to prevent consolidation. As players in a heavily regulated industry, distributors have an incentive to remain politically engaged, and Tigani did just that.
He gave generously to politicians up and down the rungs of Delaware politics, mostly Democrats in that deep blue state, and spearheaded a successful 2003 push to legalize Sunday liquor sales.
When Beau Biden set out on his first campaign for state attorney general, in 2005, Tigani pitched in with fundraising. When Joe Biden mounted his second presidential bid two years later, Tigani made for a natural ally, and set about bundling donations.
In the pre-Citizens United era, bundlers — people who could tap their networks to solicit the maximum allowable contributions from dozens of contacts — played a paramount role in financing presidential campaigns.
In Tigani’s case, he would bundle contributions from NKS employees, their spouses and other associates, and then reimburse them from company funds, a practice that was illegal. Tigani says he knew that the reimbursements were a way of getting around individual contribution limits, but that he had no idea they were criminal. He said he understood reimbursements to be a widespread, accepted practice, and named as an example another prominent Delaware executive who he said was known to regularly reimburse employees for political contributions.
So in late August 2007, Tigani held what the government’s presentence investigation report later called a “sham” fundraiser for Biden, soliciting 17 checks from his employees, only to reimburse them for the donations from company funds.
Tigani disputes the government’s assertion that he held fake events in order to conceal his reimbursements. In reality, he said, Biden campaign staffers would simply swing by NKS headquarters to pick up bundled checks, and that the company would often lay out a spread of coffee and donuts for whoever happened to be in the office that day. He said he and Biden staffers would jokingly refer to the no-frills handoffs as fundraisers.
Tigani’s involvement with the Biden campaign deepened two months later, he said, when he attended the Democratic primary debate at Drexel University as one of 10 personal guests of Biden’s campaign, seated next to Beau’s wife, Hallie.
After the debate — at which a poor showing by Hillary Clinton made more of a mark than anything the Delaware senator said — the Biden crew retired for its after-party to Smokey Joe’s, a campus dive bar near the University of Pennsylvania that was once name-checked by Gerald Ford in a Penn commencement address.