It could be that attorney Marc C. Panepinto simply can’t afford to choose between his successful law practice and the $79,500 base salary he earns as a state senator from Buffalo.
And it could be that the rookie Democrat is putting his family and law firm’s interests first, just as he said Tuesday in announcing he will not run for a second term in November.
Or the reasons could run deeper, as questions now rise about the weekend resignation of his chief of staff and as the Erie County district attorney fields inquiries about an alleged underage student party at his Buffalo home.
Now, today’s reality includes major questions about future representation of the 60th Senate District as Republicans and Democrats scramble for a seat that could determine control of the State Senate.
Panepinto appeared visibly shaken Tuesday as he appeared before a phalanx of reporters and cameras in the stately library of his Dolce Panepinto law firm, headquartered in a Delaware Avenue mansion, to announce his departure from the race.
“It’s the best decision for my family, my law partners and the party,” Panepinto said.
When asked if he was under an investigation, Panepinto said “no.”
Soon after, following only four questions, a staffer quickly cut off questioning at the brief news conference. The senator, his three daughters, and his wife – State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto – then quickly retreated to the mansion’s inner recesses.
But Panepinto still must answer several questions, such as why Danny Corum – his chief of staff – resigned over the weekend and was replaced by deputy Chris Savage.
“We made a change,” is all Panepinto would say Tuesday.
When asked why Corum, his chief aide and a former staffer with the United Federation of Teachers, a NYSUT affiliate in New York City, had resigned, Panepinto replied: “That situation will play itself out.”
Another question he faces centers around whether Panepinto or those close to him could be the subject of police scrutiny. Buffalo Public Schools officials who asked not to be identified said they are looking into social media reports of underage drinking at the senator’s home. The sources said they then relayed the information to acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr.
“An investigation is pending and we are awaiting results,” Flaherty said late Tuesday. “If and when credible facts are brought to our attention, we will act on them.”
Other sources say it is doubtful that a sitting senator would decline running for re-election over an alleged underage drinking party.
On Tuesday, the senator also referred to serious discussions in the State Legislature about a potential ban on outside income. Panepinto, considered one of the most successful lawyers in the Legislature, said: “I’ve got to put my family first and my law firm first.”
If lawmakers enact such a ban, Panepinto said he did not want his personal issues to stand in the way of the Democrats keeping the Senate seat.
A Buffalo News column earlier this month described the Democrats’ endorsement process in relation to Panepinto.
Panepinto is just 15 months into his first term. He won the 2014 Senate race by beating incumbent Mark J. Grisanti, who ran on the Independence line, Republican Kevin T. Stocker and Conservative Party candidate Timothy Gallagher. Throughout the bitter campaign he was dogged by his 2001 misdemeanor guilty plea for collecting fraudulent voter signatures on designating petitions.
He also faced scrutiny last year when the New York Daily News reported that soon after taking office, he pressed Workers’ Compensation Board officials to reconsider plans for altering or reducing reimbursements to health care professionals. The Daily News also reported that Panepinto’s office did not respond to questions about whether he had queried the state’s Legislative Ethics Commission about any potential conflict of interest posed by his efforts.
At least $3 million was spent in his 2014 race from all sides to help Panepinto win with just 34 percent of the vote, including more than $1 million from NYSUT and an enrollment edge of a 47 to 30 percent over Republicans in the district.
Panepinto’s decision not to run and his sudden disappearance from the Capitol on Tuesday afternoon surprised both Democrats and Republicans.
“We regretfully accept Sen. Panepinto’s decision not to seek re-election in November,” Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said. “Under the given circumstances, we agree it is the right choice, and certainly wish Marc well and thank him for his service to our community.”
Zellner’s Democrats just two weeks ago endorsed Panepinto, but several sources close to the chairman described it as “hold your nose” backing. Once source said Zellner is “incensed” that Panepinto did not tell the chairman that an investigation may be underway as he was asking for the party nod.
“Marc is a challenge for Jeremy,” the source said even before Panepinto announced his Tuesday plans.
Panepinto was previously on the outs with the Democratic organization, especially after he backed Zellner rival Frank C. Max Jr. for chairman in 2012 and hired David B. Pfaff, an associate of longtime Zellner party rival G. Steven Pigeon.
But when NYSUT announced its backing for Panepinto this year, most observers felt Zellner had no choice but to endorse him over rival Amber A. Small – executive director of the Parkside Community Association – because of the union’s significant dollars and human resources.
Now Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan of Buffalo acknowledges he is considering the contest, though he would have to give up his safe Assembly majority seat for a seat now held by a minority party Democrat in the hope that Democrats statewide can retake the State Senate in this fall’s elections.
“Sen. Panepinto’s decision is unexpected and it’s obviously humbling for my name to be mentioned among possible candidates,” Ryan said Tuesday evening. “This is something I’ll need to carefully consider with my family, my community and my staff before making any decisions.”
Sen. Michael Gianaris of Queens, who directs Democratic campaign efforts in the Senate, said he will meet with Small, Ryan and possibly others while coordinating efforts with Zellner and County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz.
Meanwhile, Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy said Panepinto “created far more questions than answers as to why he is not seeking re-election to the New York State Senate.”
“By casually mentioning a ‘staff turnover’ issue and saying that the ‘process would play out,’ he clearly is withholding some facts that have led to his abandoning his campaign for re-election,” Langworthy said in a statement. “After spending an absolute personal fortune on his campaign in 2014, it is highly unlikely he would quit unless there was very serious ethical issues in question.”
Langworthy added: “He will leave office with a dark cloud over his head unless he comes clean as to why he is really leaving the Senate.”
The chairman also said he still expects County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs to emerge as the Republican candidate, setting up what could prove one of the most bitter and costly legislative races in the state.
“I am strongly urging him to seek the Senate seat and I hope he makes a decision very quickly,” Langworthy said.
With the backing of the New York State United Teachers union in his 2014 campaign, Panepinto came to Albany swinging at one of the union’s biggest targets at the time: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
At one point last spring, Panepinto said in a Buffalo News interview that he wasn’t a psychologist and so couldn’t understand where Cuomo was coming from, but then added that the Democratic governor “doesn’t like consensus-building, he doesn’t believe in the legislative process … he wants to dictate.’
Panepinto’s rhetoric against Cuomo has been muted so far this year.
Unlike many freshmen who come to Albany, Panepinto was not shy in his first term about engaging in Senate floor debates with Republicans.
Republicans redrew his district several years ago in a last-ditch attempt to protect Grisanti. They carved a district that went from Grand Island in the north along a narrow waterfront section of Buffalo and south to Brant.
As a newcomer in the minority political party in the Senate, Panepinto has had just two of his bills become law; one involved parkland in Hamburg and the other to add Eighteen Mile Creek in Erie County to the definition of an inland waterway.
Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this this.