The Independent learned this week that an FBI agent grilled Southampton Trustees about Congressman Tim Bishop's role in the so-called "Plover-Gate" incident.
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On another occasion last spring, two lawyers from the House Ethics Committee also came to town, investigating the same matter.
Specifically, the agents wanted to know the extent of the Congressman's role in securing a permit for a fireworks display near an active Piping Plover nest in May 2012.
The Bishop camp ignored several requests for comment about the FBI investigation, and whether there is a State Department probe underway. The House Ethics Committee was scheduled to make a statement about the investigation today.
A Sagaponack homeowner, Eric Semler, asked Bishop for help securing a fireworks permit just five days before his son's Bar Mitzvah. Bishop's office helped cut through a myriad of red tape, dealing with several different local, state, and federal agencies – but not before his daughter Molly, a fundraiser for the Congressman, petitioned Semler for a $10,000 contribution.
"We had a discussion about the permit process," said Eric Shultz, the President of the Trustees. "He asked about the procedure and whether it was directly followed." Shultz turned the agent over to Fred Havemeyer, who was the board's point man in the matter.
"An FBI agent came in last winter," related Havemeyer, a Trustee in charge of the permit process in that area of town. "He wanted details about what the office did to aid [Eric] Semler and Bishop's office finding a way to make [the fireworks] happen." The thrust of the questioning was "There was a tremendous amount of activity" in the days before the fireworks, Havemeyer said.
Semler a wealthy hedge fund manager with a house on the ocean, planned the fireworks as part of a Bar Mitzvah celebration for his son. Havermeyer categorized the interaction between the Trustees, the DEC, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bishop's office as "intense."
"I've tried to help people and worked with the Fish and Wildlife people in the past," Havemeyer related. "But it's usually for someone who wants to have a [beach] party" near a Plover nesting site.
Last Spring "two men came from DC, lawyers for the House Ethics Committee. They did the lawyer thing, asking me questions for two hours." Havemeyer said they asked a lot of questions about Bishop's involvement in procuring permission for the fireworks. Havemeyer told them the events at Semler's house "weren't unusual. I didn't want to get dragged into it. My main concern was the Trustees. There was nothing done by this office that could be considered unethical."
Grucci Fireworks informed Semler on May 21, 2012 that it had not received the necessary approvals for a fireworks display because of the Plover nest. Semler called Bishop, who agreed to intercede. Semler and his wife ended up giving the Bishop campaign a total of $5000 a month later, but not before complaining – he called the solicitation from Bishop's camp "really gross" in an email to Grucci just days after he called Bishop asking for help. In one email Semler complained that Bishop, "didn't hesitate to solicit me in the heat of the battle."
The Independent revealed last year that Semler is a business associate of Robert F.X. Sillerman, Bishop's long time friend and a huge campaign contributor.
According to SEC records Semler's firm, TCS Global Equity Master Fund, was involved in an offering by a new company Sillerman controls, Viggle Inc. TCS, according to the document, held or holds one million warrants to purchase shares of Viggle, and Semler has "voting power and investment power" over the securities held by TCS Global.
Viggle recently donated $5400 to Bishop, who has spent close to $40,000 in campaign funds on legal fees since the investigation began.
"It was quite an effort, a tremendous amount of work," Havemeyer said about procuring the necessary permits for Semler. "Usually you get a thank you note or something. There was nothing. That has rankled me ever since."
Bishop spent the days before Memorial Day weekend working frantically to grease the skids for Semler.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was completely opposed to allowing the fireworks to happen five days before the event. "This event will likely cause adverse affects on the Piping Plover," Steve Papa, a senior biologist with the USFWS told Edward Rubio, a logistics assistant for Grucci. "Unfortunately . . . there is no possibility of obtaining . . . a permit. I would recommend rescheduling in September to be safe."
Bishop thrust himself into the permitting process even as his daughter was hitting up Semler for a donation. On May 24 a Grucci higher-up sent out a group e-mail to some employees: "Wow . . . Congressman Bishop is meeting with the DEC regional director this morning. Be prepared to move forward." It is not known what transpired at that meeting or even if it took place, but the next day, Papa said, a USFWS superior wrote to Bishop, "you're good to go" – a direct reversal of the USFWS position from a day earlier.
In the interim the scope of the fireworks display was pared down and the location was switched to the roof of the house.
Despite the clutch of plover eggs near the fireworks site – one of only 18 in the entire town of Southampton – Semler delivered his Bar Mitzvah present to his son, and 200 people gathered a few hundred yards from the plover eggs.
Semler sent a note to the Congressman on May 28th: "I want to thank you again for going out of your way to help us . . . I can't really believe we pulled it off. Your relentless focus on this task was so impressive." Three weeks later he and his wife each contributed $2500 each to Bishop's campaign, the maximum allowable.
It is illegal for a sitting congressman to solicit a contribution for performing an official function. Bishop donated the money to charity after the story broke but insisted there was no wrongdoing on his part.
Semler initially complained bitterly about Bishop's camp asking for money. After reportedly receiving a call from Bishop he changed his story – Semler told Newsday the request for a donation came only after the permit for the fireworks was obtained. However a string of e-mails and other documents obtained by this newspaper clearly contradict his statement.