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Mario Biaggi, longtime congressman, dies at 97

Congressman Mario Biaggi, during a hearing on shipping

Congressman Mario Biaggi, during a hearing on shipping nuclear waste through New York City at City Hall in Manhattan on April 15, 1986. Credit: Alan Raia

Mario Biaggi, a 10-term Democratic congressman from the Bronx who did prison time for corruption, died on Wednesday. He was 97.

The cause of death was old age, his longtime spokesman, Mortimer Matz, said Thursday.

Biaggi, a conservative Democrat, parlayed a record as one of the city's most decorated cops into a political career, winning his first race for Congress in 1968. A 1973 bid for mayor cratered amid revelations he had refused to answer a grand jury's questions.

Biaggi's congressional career ended in disgrace after being convicted in the late 1980s for taking nearly $2 million in stocks and cash from a Bronx firm and free trips from a Brooklyn political boss.

A trial revealed that he vacationed at a Florida spa with a woman who was not his wife -- jaunts paid for by a Democratic leader. He ended up doing 26 months in prison and was freed early, in 1991, because of deteriorating health.

Matz said Biaggi, who blamed the ambitions of then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani for his troubles, was steadfast in his innocence. Giuliani's office called Biaggi then "a thug in a congressman's suit."

"He didn't believe he did anything wrong, nor did his lawyer, nor many people around him," Matz said Thursday. "He handled it with confidence."

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who bonded with Biaggi over their mutual support of the Irish Republican cause in Northern Ireland, recalled going to see him when first beginning his own political career.

"If you look at the whole person . . . you look at the positive and you look at the tough times and on balance, he was a very good guy," King said Thursday. "Those of us who knew him try to put it all in perspective."

Biaggi, born in New York City on Oct. 26, 1917, was a graduate of Harran High School in Manhattan, and decades later, New York Law School, where he studied on off-hours to become an attorney, though he'd never attended college. As a police officer, he earned plaudits for valor. An accident with a runaway horse left him with a limp.

He's survived by his four children, Barbara, Jacqueline, Richard and Mario II, as well as 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife of 56 years, Marie Wassil Biaggi, died in 1997.

The wake will be Monday and Tuesday at the Riverdale-on-Hudson Funeral Home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The family will celebrate a funeral Mass at St. Philip Neri's Church, also in the borough.

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