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Questions swirl around city GOP's money trail

When City of Buffalo Republicans submitted their credit card to pay for last December’s reorganization meeting at a downtown restaurant, an unwelcome surprise greeted new Chairwoman Tracey M. McNerney.

The card was rejected because their treasury was bare, she was told. Someone would have to foot the bill.

McNerney soon found herself asking questions about the empty bank account. And now, so are state and county elections officials.

Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr has requested that his state counterparts probe the whereabouts of $9,200 in donations that departing city GOP Chairman William E. Nowakowski authorized last October.

That’s because recipients of the transactions never accounted for them in state campaign finance reports, as required by election law so New York’s citizens can determine the origin and use of political contributions.

And others are raising still more questions: Why were Republicans contributing in the first place to a mysterious fund with deep Democratic roots?

Though nobody has accused Nowakowski of wrongdoing and the amounts in question rank as relatively minor, one donation of $4,700 assumes new significance because it was directed to WNY Freedom. That is a political action committee with close ties to G. Steven Pigeon, the same Democratic operative at the center of a state and federal investigation of another fundraising committee called the WNY Progressive Caucus.

It also demonstrates the Pigeon camp’s long-standing and extraordinary efforts to create a series of shadowy – albeit legal – entities to raise and spend money for its political interests.

It all leads Mohr to seek a state Board of Elections investigation.

“It’s a continuation of the same pattern we’ve seen with these independent expenditure committees,” he said. “Money travels through those committees and it’s not reported.”

The connections between WNY Freedom and the WNY Progressive Caucus include:

• David B. Pfaff, a longtime Pigeon associate now employed by Democratic State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto of Buffalo, was involved with both committees. He kept records for the WNY Progressive Caucus and served as treasurer for WNY Freedom. He must now answer why the Buffalo GOP’s donations to WNY Freedom were never recorded.

• Kristy L. Mazurek was treasurer of the WNY Progressive Caucus. The Buffalo News has reported that she is cooperating with investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office, State Police and FBI probing its activities. State Board of Elections records indicate that she is also authorized to sign checks for WNY Freedom.

• Former Buffalo Republican Treasurer Joseph J. Surdyk Jr. last September initially made out his committee’s check to People for Accountable Government, another Pigeon-connected independent committee that was active in the 2008 campaign. According to a copy of the check obtained by The News, Surdyk then crossed out People for Accountable Government as payee and substituted WNY Freedom.

He did not respond to a request for comment.

• Buffalo developer Carl P. Paladino, who also is not suspected of any wrongdoing, said Pigeon asked him to donate $1,000 in October 2013 – immediately after the WNY Progressive Caucus raised $267,000 for opponents of candidates backed by Pigeon adversaries in Democratic headquarters.

City GOP left penniless

Other concerns have been raised about the Buffalo GOP. Mohr also accuses Nowakowski of leaving the city Republican committee essentially penniless by spending down its treasury when he knew he would be defeated for re-election.

“It was nothing short of a malicious act,” Mohr said.

McNerney, the new head of the Buffalo GOP, agrees,

“He acted like a dictator the entire time he was chairman,” she said of Nowakowski. “Because he did not get his way, he decided to run this committee into the ground.”

Mohr wants the state to probe another unreported donation from the Buffalo GOP to James E. Rozanski, who ran for University Council member last November as the only Republican on the Council ballot. Nowakowski sent $4,500 to a committee called Friends of James Rozanski at the candidate’s address, though no such committee existed and state records include no indication the money was received or how it was spent.

Rozanski said last week that he only now realizes he should have created a campaign committee to receive and spend the $4,500 – his only outside money. He said he spent the donation on posters, mailings and ads, but acknowledges he kept no official record of his expenditures.

“I was supposed to send in something and never did,” he said, adding he has recently taken steps to submit the proper forms.

Recipients filed no record

Nowakowski said he does not know why Rozanski, his wife’s cousin, failed to properly form an election committee and record the city GOP’s donation.

An attorney, Nowakowski emphasized he recorded all his donations according to the law and cannot answer why the recipients did not. He acknowledged some will question why his GOP committee donated to an entity controlled by Pfaff, the veteran Democratic operative. He and Pfaff are longtime friends, he explained, and both supported two Buffalo School Board candidates in 2014 who eventually helped form a new majority.

“Did I know what they would do with it? No,” Nowakowski said of the donation. “I trusted Dave would do the right thing.”

Paladino, meanwhile, explained that Pigeon asked him for a donation in October 2013, which was transmitted in five $200 payments directly to Pigeon. He said he viewed the city GOP and Pfaff as helpful toward building a new majority on the School Board, but never knew how his donation would be used.

“The purpose of it? I have no idea,” Paladino said.

“I obviously spoke to him and he obviously asked me to donate to the fund,” he added of Pigeon. “Where did the $1,000 go?”

Dennis C. Vacco, the former state attorney general representing Pigeon, did not return several calls seeking comment. Vacco has been working for Pigeon since before state and federal agents entered the former Erie County Democratic chairman’s home with search warrants on May 28.

‘Sour grapes’ by Mohr

Pigeon earlier this year blamed “clerical errors” for discrepancies in figures reported to the Board of Elections for purchases of television advertising by the WNY Progressive Caucus and the actual amounts spent at local stations.

Pfaff, meanwhile, acknowledged mistakes in keeping WNY Progressive Caucus records, especially in reporting that Pigeon received $25,000 from the committee for consulting services. Though Pfaff acknowledged listing the $25,000 as an expenditure, he called it a mistake. He and Pigeon said the money was never received, with Pigeon blaming “sloppy” record-eeping for the entry in the campaign reports.

Pfaff now claims more mistakes and problems communicating with the state board for the failure to record any donations to WNY Freedom. He believes his reports were never properly recorded because the board did not recognize his replacement of Marla K. Babat as treasurer following her resignation in November 2013. Now confidential law clerk to Erie County Family Court Judge Deanne M. Tripi, Babat did not return a phone call asking why she resigned.

“They didn’t accept them because they didn’t believe I was the treasurer,” Pfaff said.

While he said the WNY Progressive Caucus originally aimed to help Democrats, WNY Freedom is designed for “whoever did a good job regardless of party affiliation.”

“All this transpired before me taking a job with Marc Panepinto,” Pfaff said. “Back then, I was a free-wheeling operative who could do what I want.

“This is all sour grapes by Ralph Mohr and the Republicans,” he added.

Pfaff was also asked if he has been questioned by law enforcement in connection with the WNY Progressive Caucus investigation.

“Two guys came in and gave me their card. We had a pleasant chat,” he said. “I did not knowingly or willingly break election law. I just don’t do that.

“There was poor record-keeping and poor filing,” he added. “I don’t do this for a living, I do it to help out people. And people make mistakes.”

Seeking answers

Mohr contends, however, that Pfaff must answer why statements of “no activity” were filed when WNY Freedom continued to receive funds. City Republicans, meanwhile, said they were unaware of the donations until after Nowakowski resigned and left an almost empty treasury.

“We don’t know where the money went,” McNerney said. “Frankly, many decisions were made without any knowledge of the Executive Committee.”

John W. Conklin, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said his agency contacted Pfaff several times in recent months about the matter.

“We have had multiple conversations with him asking to file paperwork, which he has not done,” Conklin said, adding that the state board needs to determine if the committee may be raising and spending money without accountability.

Risa Sugarman, chief enforcement counsel for the state Board of Elections, as a matter of policy will not discuss potential investigations. But Mohr said Sugarman has at least acknowledged to him receipt of his request for a probe.

Now Mohr said he is hopeful that Sugarman, who occupies a new position aiming to tighten enforcement of election laws, will follow through on his request for an investigation.

“This is exactly the type of situation cited by the governor in creation of the enforcement counsel,” he said. “We’ll see if there is any willingness to do anything.”