Erie County’s two elections commissioners this week will submit to the state Board of Elections results of their probe into a fundraising committee involving political operative G. Steven Pigeon, opening the possibility of a further investigation by State Police.
Republican Ralph M. Mohr and Democrat Dennis E. Ward said any new probe of Pigeon’s WNY Progressive Caucus, which raised $267,000 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Party headquarters in last fall’s primary, will now depend on the state panel.
But the potential state action occurs at a sensitive time, because it would scrutinize the activities of Pigeon – a close ally of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – during this gubernatorial election year when the incumbent seeks to win Western New York counties that voted against him four years ago.
Any further investigation would be expected to also concentrate on Kristy L. Mazurek, who is mentioned as a candidate to run for the Assembly vacancy created in January when Democrat Dennis H. Gabryszak resigned after several complaints of sexual harassment by former staff, including Mazurek. She is a Pigeon associate and treasurer of the political committee under review.
“We have followed up on aspects of complaints we’ve received and have gathered documents with respect to the complaint,” Mohr said, declining to elaborate.
Ward also would not provide particulars, other than to say he and Mohr will reveal what they have to the state officials.
“We’ve sent the information to them; it’s now in their bailiwick,” he said. “Who knows what they will do with it?”
At the heart of the complaints against Pigeon’s fundraising caucus lies the claim that it spent a significant sum of money in the primaries, coordinating that spending with candidates he backed. That is illegal in New York.
Pigeon has always denied any illegal coordination of campaign activity between his political caucus and any other campaigns, and no claims of coordination are expected to be presented to the state board following the local probe.
Instead, a source close to the situation said the Erie County commissioners on Tuesday will present evidence – some obtained by subpoena – of discrepancies between amounts of money the Pigeon caucus reported in campaign finance filings and what was actually spent on local political ads.
The source said the local Board of Elections has used its subpoena power to examine records not normally open to public scrutiny, while also matching campaign finance reports with records detailing expenditures on political advertising required by election law to be maintained by broadcast outlets. If a majority of the state Board of Elections – composed of two Democratic and two Republican members – approve further investigation, the source said, then the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and its wide array of investigative resources could become involved.
The investigation stems from complaints filed with both the county and state elections boards by Betty Jean Grant, minority leader of the Erie County Legislature, and former Legislator Timothy R. Hogues. Both were targets of ads sponsored by the Pigeon caucus last year, and they contend the committee spent money on candidates for sheriff and County Legislature in coordination with the candidates – a violation of state law.
But the evidence slated for presentation on Tuesday is expected to revolve only around the spending discrepancies, according to the source.
Grant and Hogues also filed complaints with state’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which was appointed by Cuomo last year in a crackdown on political corruption. That panel never acknowledged her complaints.
Complaints also were filed by Mark A. Sacha, a former assistant district attorney who has long criticized what he calls the failure of the District Attorney’s Office to prosecute violations of state election law.
When the local elections board held its public hearing on the complaints in October, however, attorney Jerome D. Schad – the Amherst Democratic chairman appearing for the plaintiffs – contended that the Pigeon committee failed to report about $35,000 of television expenditures on behalf of Richard E. Dobson, who was challenging the candidate party leaders had backed for sheriff in the Democratic primary.
Schad said the Pigeon committee spent about $112,000 for Dobson, but because it was never registered as an independent committee with no spending limits, it had violated state spending laws. Dobson defeated Bert D. Dunn in the Democratic primary and then lost in the general election to Republican incumbent Timothy B. Howard.
“However you view the use of money on campaigns, we have a system in this state that says it has to be on a level playing field,” Schad said then. “That’s not what the actions of this committee suggest.”
Pigeon and Mazurek have consistently maintained that they observed all rules and that political considerations motivate the complaints. Mazurek also has said she submitted an amendment to original papers before the primary election.
Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman and a frequent critic of the local party’s current leadership, contributed more than $100,000 of his own money to the caucus, according to campaign finance reports. As a result, the caucus sponsored an intense spate of advertising for Dobson, while the candidate himself raised and spent relatively little on his own behalf.
Records also show State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, contributed about $85,000 from his campaign account to the Pigeon committee, which supported Grant’s opponent in last year’s County Legislature election. Grant narrowly lost to Kennedy in the 2012 Senate primary, and has announced her candidacy against him again in 2014.
While the Pigeon fundrasing committee proved a force in the Democratic primary, the caucus was virtually inactive during the general election.
Ward and Mohr last initiated a probe of Pigeon in 2008 in connection with the Responsible New York committee sponsored by former Buffalo Sabres owner and gubernatorial candidate B. Thomas Golisano. The results of their investigation were then forwarded to Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares, who took no action.