BY FRANK PARLATO
A POLITICAL QUESTION
The question of whether politics was a motive for New York State Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman’s prosecution of political operative and attorney G. Steven Pigeon, 55, has been debated in a few circles.
Last month, Pigeon was charged by Schneiderman with bribing a New York State Supreme Court Justice and extorting a young attorney appointed by that judge to a receivership.
Following Pigeon’s arraignment, where he pleaded innocent to all nine counts alleged against him, a reporter asked Pigeon’s attorney, Paul Cambria, if he thought politics played a role in the prosecution.
Cambria responded, “… I think the community will make its own judgment as to whether or not politics are involved in this case once all the evidence comes in the courtroom.”
A WELL PUBLICIZED RAID
The community became aware that Pigeon was the target of a New York State investigation when his home was raided by law enforcement agents on May 28, 2015.
It was reported agents were searching for evidence of election law violations connected to a Political Action Committee Pigeon allegedly controlled.
Representatives from most of WNY’s media outlets were on hand for the raid. Waiting outside Pigeon’s waterfront condo as law enforcement agents searched his home, and left with his cell phone and computer, they filmed and took notes of the event.
Some assumed that law enforcement leaked the raid to reporters. But one law enforcement source said a neighbor saw agents at Pigeon’s home and tipped off reporters who rushed to the scene.
It was not clear how the media knew about the raids in Orchard Park and Akron of Pigeon associates, Steve Casey and Chris Grant – but the media was there as well.
THE JUDGE WAS NOT HIS FRIEND
The warrant authorizing the raid on Pigeon’s home was signed by Erie County Judge Michael Pietruszka. It is not known what legal arguments law enforcement used to persuade Judge Pietruszka that a subpoena for documents concerning election law violations was insufficient and a search warrant was needed.
A longtime jurist, Pietruszka has never been accused of being influenced in any of his decisions by politics.
But if the subject is politics, it should be mentioned that Pietruszka once had a serious scrape with Pigeon.
Back in the 1990’s, then Erie County Democratic Party Chairman, James Sorrentino had committed to endorsing Pietruszka, then a lawyer, for NY State Supreme Court justice. Pigeon was vice chairman.
When Sorrentino was ousted, and replaced by Pigeon, many in the party expected Pigeon would honor Sorrentino’s commitment.
Instead Pigeon endorsed Eugene Fahey who went on to become state supreme court justice then rose to the appellate division and the court of appeals.
As everyone in the party then knew, Pietruszka came to Pigeon’s office and the two men had a contentious battle.
Pietruszka later became a county court judge, but not a state supreme court judge, for which, arguably, he can thank Pigeon.
NOT INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
As for Pigeon, after the well-publicized raid on his home, his life was in shambles.
Picture your own home suddenly raided by a swarm of armed men who search your possessions and walk off with your computer and cell phone – over alleged election law violations.
The subsequent wave of publicity caused fair weather friends to run away in droves.
Pigeon’s law firm, Underberg and Kessler parted company with him. The Seneca Nation of Indians publicly announced it canceled its contract with Pigeon following the raid. Modern Disposal quietly ended their consulting contract with Pigeon as well.
I’M WITH HER
Just prior to the raid, Pigeon had planned to assist Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House.
He helped Hillary in her race for the U.S. Senate in 1999. In 2005, Bill Clinton asked Pigeon to introduce him to billionaire Tom Golisano.
Pigeon arranged the meeting at Clinton’s home. Over the next nine years, the Golisano’s Foundation donated $25 million to the Clinton Global Initiative, which some say is the genesis of the Clinton’s wealth.
When Hillary Clinton launched her presidential bid in 2007, Pigeon signed on as a “Hillraiser” committed to raising at least $100,000 for her campaign. Pigeon raised over one million dollars for Hillary.
By the time of the raid, Pigeon had raised another $100,000 for the Ready For Hillary PAC.
He also donated $2,700 to Hilary’s campaign in his own name on April 16, 2015.
On the day after the raid, the Clinton campaign returned the $2,700 donation to Pigeon.
The Hilary PAC however kept the $100,000.
A CHANGING INVESTIGATION
After the raid and its aftermath, it was quiet.
About a year had passed before the Buffalo News reported – some say it was leaked by law enforcement – that emails found on Pigeon’s seized phone or computer caused the state investigation to veer from election law violations to more serious bribery charges involving Pigeon and State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek.
Soon afterward, the Attorney General’s Office led a special grand jury to indict Pigeon and Michalek, 65, based on an alleged two-way bribery scheme – conducted not in whispers and bags of cash – but “brazenly” and “arrogantly” through emails.
Michalek accepted a plea deal admitting to one count of bribe-receiving and one count of offering a false instrument. He resigned his judgeship, lost his law license, and preserved his $120,500 state pension.
As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed to make no sentencing recommendations (usually prosecutors argue for tough sentences for corrupt judges) in return for Michalek testifying against Pigeon.
State Supreme Court Justice Donald Cerio said Michalek could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison; he might also get probation.
Pigeon faces up to 15 years if convicted on all counts.
A JUDGE WAS MADE NOT BORN
It is worth noting while on the topic of political affairs and their influence on men, that, unlike Pigeon, who is in disfavor with Democratic Party bosses, Michalek is a consummate insider.
He joined the scene under party boss Vincent J. Sorrentino who, as town attorney for Hamburg, named Michalek assistant town attorney in 1988. In 1994, Sorrentino, as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, arranged for Michalek to become a state supreme court judge- without having to run for office.
Sorrentino made a deal with Republican party boss Tom Reynolds to have Democrats endorse a Republican judicial candidate in return for Republicans endorsing Michalek.
Having both the Democratic and Republican lines ensured Michalek had no opponent and he was elected in 1994 to the State Supreme Court bench for a 14 year term.
In 1996, Michalek bought a seven bedroom waterfront mansion on Lake Erie – at 6286 Old Lake Shore Road – in Hamburg for the then considerable price of $340,000.
As his 14 year term was nearing completion, Michalek became friendly with then party boss, Len Lenihan. Lenihan also traded judicial elected office with Republican party bosses in return for Michalek again getting a cross endorsement.
Michalek spent 20 years as a judge, earning $193,000 per year before he was indicted, ruling on decisions that affected the people of his community in an elected position and never once did he face an opponent.
Never did the people have a chance to decide if he was a worthy judge.
Party bosses took care of him fully.
Maybe others did too.
A HOUSE IS NOT A HOME
Michalek’s looming indictment may have prompted him to list his lakefront home for sale recently at $978,800.
It was noted by the Buffalo News that Town of Hamburg assessors assessed the property for tax purposes at $255,000 –almost $100,000 below what the judge paid for it more than 20 years ago
A search of assessment records along Lake Shore Road shows that similar homes to Michalek’s are assessed for a lot more, as for instance, 6046 Old Lake Shore Road, also a seven bedroom lakefront home, which is assessed at $600,000.
Smaller and more modest homes are assessed at the same valuation as Michalek’s lakefront assessment.
Judge Michalek knew how to reap the perks of public office.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
At trial, Michalek is expected to be a witness against Pigeon. The prosecution may attempt to persuade a jury that Michalek was an otherwise good judge who became prey to the powerful, corrupting influence of Pigeon.
The defense might argue that as a self-admitted corrupt judge, Michalek may be lying about his bribery scheme with Pigeon (just as he lied as a self serving judge) to secure a plea and a lenient sentence.
WHAT DID THEY BRIBE EACH OTHER WITH?
The defense at trial will almost certainly explore what Pigeon and Michalek received.
The two cases alluded to in the indictment where Pigeon was attorney– were settled out of court.
Michalek never made a final ruling on the cases.
Michalek, the defense may argue, was not shy about asking Pigeon to help him find a job for his son; get a political appointment for his wife; and help him get a higher position in the judiciary.
Pigeon was unable to deliver on Michalek’s requests.
As further evidence of the bribes, the state points out that Michalek got a free ticket from Pigeon for Michalek’s wife to attend a fundraiser for Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Michaleks got tickets to two Buffalo Sabres games from Pigeon.
A CAST ALIGNED AGAINST PIGEON
Almost the entire team who led the charge to indict Pigeon had previous political experiences with Pigeon or Michalek.
The two Assistant Attorneys General appointed by Schneiderman to prosecute Pigeon have had political brushes with Pigeon or rewards from Michalek.
While it may not be political it is at least ironic, that the lead prosecutor, Susan H. Sadinsky, served as Michalek’s campaign treasurer for his 2008 re-election.
Sadinski likely helped craft the Michalek plea deal which includes the provision that Michalek be a witness against Pigeon.
Assistant Attorney General Diane LaVallee will assist Sadinski. And while the facts may be of a political nature, no one is alleging it will bleed into the courtroom.
Yet, it is at least interesting that in 2008, when LaVallee ran against Frank Sedita for Erie County DA, Pigeon was the architect of Sedita’s winning campaign.
In 2013, Pigeon was asking Gov. Cuomo to replace a number of former Republican Governor George Pataki hires – with Democrats as is customary with changes in administration.
It was well known in political circles at the time, that Pigeon sought to have Republican LaVallee fired from her job at the Department of Tax and Finance and replaced with a Democrat.
According to a source, LaVallee voluntarily left the position and Schneiderman, who is a political foe of Cuomo, hired her based on her abilities and merit.
SCHNEIDERMAN AND PIGEON
It is also a fact that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman knew Pigeon – before he became attorney general.
Backed by billionaire Tom Golisano, Pigeon directed a political action committee (PAC), called Responsible New York PAC which spent more than $4 million on key races in 2008 to support Democrats in the state senate.
Golisano and Pigeon’s plan was to help give Democrats control of the senate and in return they expected an increased share of influence and attention to Western New York, normally controlled by New York City.
The 2008 election put Democrats in the majority for the first time since the 1960’s, with a one seat majority – 32 seats (out of 62).
As for Schneiderman, he had been a state senator for 10 years. Since Republicans controlled the senate the entire time, as a minority party member Schneiderman had little power or prestige.
Now with Democrats in the majority, Schneiderman, a bull among the herd, rose to deputy leader of the senate.
Things went awry however when Golisano and Pigeon felt the NYC Democrats were not honoring their WNY commitment.
Pigeon met with Schniederman at Justin’s Restaurant on Lark St. in Albany and asked him to intercede with Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.
The meeting was unproductive and that’s when Pigeon engineered the famous coup by persuading two Democrat senators — Pedro Espada Jr. and Hiram Monserrate to organize with Republicans.
The Republican majority lasted a day as Democrats persuaded Monserrate to return. But Espada remained with the GOP and a deadlocked senate at 31-31 was the result. Nobody was in control; everybody was scrambling.
Schneiderman, a lawyer, devised the Democrat’s litigation strategy to combat the deadlock as it spilled into court. Schneiderman wrote to his constituents. “This shameless takeover attempt is undemocratic.”
State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. recalled, “In 2009 when the coup … happened, the head behind it was Steve Pigeon. Eric Schneiderman was one of the shining stars in the Senate Democratic conference, and from that time, there has been bad blood.”
According to three sources who claimed to have witnessed it personally, after the coup, Schneiderman and Pigeon met accidentally in a parking lot of a hotel on Holland Street in Albany.
Schneiderman appeared wroth, and, according to all three sources, threatened Pigeon with eventual retaliation for his role in the senate upheaval.
SCHNEIDERMAN MOVES ON
The next election cycle, Democrats lost the majority and Schneiderman left the senate, running for attorney general in 2010.
Pigeon opposed him. Andrew Cuomo wanted Kathleen Rice for attorney general. Pigeon flew Rice to Florida to introduce her to Golisano and Pigeon and his committeemen openly supported Rice against Schneiderman at the state Democratic convention
Rice narrowly lost the primary to Schneiderman, 34% to 32%.
Schneiderman went on to great fame as one of the leading state prosecutors in the nation and wound up investigating and then indicting Pigeon based on what was at first a political investigation that morphed into a bribery case.
The genesis of the Pigeon investigation was also touched with politics.
It began when complaints were filed with the Erie County Board of Elections concerning a political committee tied to Pigeon.
The complainants were former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha, who blames Pigeon as the reason his boss DA Frank Sedita fired him, and two Erie County Legislators, Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues, whom Pigeon funded campaigns against.
When Erie County Democratic Election Commissioner Dennis Ward and Erie County Republican Election Commissioner Ralph Mohr got the complaint, they, as they publicly said, had “a meeting of the minds” where they determined that Pigeon should be investigated.
Of course, it is too easy to conclude that the two election commissioners were Pigeon’s foes over many campaigns.
Mohr in fact complained about Pigeon in 2008, when Pigeon backed popular ex-fighter Joe Mesi against the Republican Party boss backed Michael Razenhofer of Clarence.
There was worse blood between Ward and Pigeon because of the same race. For years Ward had tangled with Pigeon who sometimes beat the party bosses’ handpicked candidates.
But this time the Democratic party bosses picked Michelle Ianello.
Pigeon picked Mesi and Mesi beat Ianello in the Democratic primary. This probably did not make Ward happy. Ianello is his wife.
So let’s recap: The question of politics was raised in the context of whether it had anything to do with the prosecution of Steve Pigeon.
The Attorney General was a political foe of Pigeon.
The lead assistant attorney general was the campaign treasurer for the chief witness against Pigeon.
Pigeon tried to get the second lead prosecutor fired from her job.
The judge who signed the search warrant was denied a state court judgeship by Pigeon.
The Democrat Election Commissioner who gave the case its original gravitas was married to a candidate who Pigeon defeated.
The Republican Election Commissioner was often foiled by Pigeon candidates.
But this is politics and none of these good people would mix politics with justice.
One is sordid and one is pure, how can they converge?
Just to complete the picture of politics as it presently exists, Steve Pigeon supplied Andrew Cuomo with early backing for his failed gubernatorial bid in 2002.
He was the only upstate county chairman to endorse Cuomo over the other party bosses’ choice, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall.
Four years later, Pigeon challenged local party bosses to back Cuomo for state attorney general against Buffalo attorney Denise E. O’Donnell.
When Cuomo became governor in 2011, Pigeon was influential in New York for the governor and contributed $54,000 to his campaign fund in 2011 and 2013.
The New York Post reported that Pigeon was part of key strategy meetings for the governor’s campaign in 2014.
After Pigeon was indicted, Cuomo was asked by the media about Pigeon.
He failed to recall that Pigeon ever had a position in government.
John Kelly, a Cuomo spokesman, released a brief statement about Pigeon: “As the governor has previously stated, ‘when it comes to the integrity of the government, if there is anyone who ever does anything wrong, there will be zero tolerance for that and I will be the first one to throw the book at them.’ ”