ALBANY – The state’s chief ethics agency has commenced an initial inquiry into complaints surrounding the office of State Sen. Marc Panepinto, a Buffalo Democrat who on Tuesday made a surprise announcement that he would not seek a second term in Albany.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) is looking into various undisclosed complaints, according to sources in Albany with direct knowledge of the matter.
Panepinto, in an interview with The Buffalo News, insisted no formal investigation has been launched.
“No investigation can start unless they send me a 15-day notice letter. Right now, the JCOPE board meets March 22. They have to vote whether or not there’ll be a notification letter sent out or an investigation started,” Panepinto, a lawyer, said in quoting the state law that created the ethics agency.
The agency, however, routinely examines complaints before deciding whether to commence a full-blown investigation.
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In the interview, Panepinto either declined to comment or push back on the swirl he said he, too, has been hearing since his decision Tuesday to depart politics.
Asked if there were any sexual harassment allegations ever brought to his attention by anyone who worked in his office, Panepinto said: “I can’t comment … I’ve been advised by Senate personnel that until there is a completion of what they’re going to do these are personnel issues that they have to deal with.”
Asked if there were any sexual harassment complaints against him personally, Panepinto said: “I can’t comment on that, either. It’s a personnel matter. It’s in the hands of the appropriate folks. I’ve cooperated.”
Panepinto confirmed that he has had four staffers leave his Senate payroll since the end of December, including Daniel Corum, a former employee of the New York City local teachers union who worked on the senator’s 2014 campaign before joining his Senate staff in 2015.
Panepinto said he fired Corum last Friday. “I cannot say why,” he said, before adding, “It was time for him to leave. There were some managerial issues that had to be addressed and the only proper way for me to address those was to let him go. He was not an effective manager.”
Panepinto praised Corum as “tremendously bright, tremendously hard-working.”
Attempts to reach Corum were unsuccessful Wednesday, as were calls or emails to former staffers Michael Schraft and Angela Feeney; state payroll records show Schraft and Feeney were employed by Panepinto through Dec. 31.
Panepinto said he is “not able to talk” about personnel matters. “That has to play itself out before anybody can talk about it,” he said.
Buffalo Public Schools officials who asked not to be identified said Tuesday 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; he told The Buffalo News late Tuesday that his office would act “if and when credible facts are brought to our attention.”
On Wednesday, Panepinto said those claims are “frankly the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.” He said he and his wife went to Boston two weekends ago with one of their daughters to attend a volleyball tournament. He said he left his 19-year-old daughter at home to supervise his 14-year-old daughter, and that his brother and sister stopped by over the weekend to check on things.
“There’s no problem that occurred that I’m aware of,” Panepinto said.
He added, however, that one parent, whom he did not name, is making serious allegations that are unfounded. “I do know some parent is calling around town complaining that there was a rape in my house. Every elected official has gotten that call, and it’s patently ridiculous. It’s a crazy situation where someone makes an unsubstantiated allegation,” he said.
Meanwhile, two sources familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified said Panepinto is consulting with noted defense attorney Terrence M. Connors on a range of issues. Connors declined to comment on Wednesday.
“I didn’t say I retained Terry Connors,” Panepinto said in response. He said he has a relationship with Connors and that the lawyer has represented him before on other matters. “Presently, there is no retainer between he and I on anything regarding the Senate,” Panepinto said.
JCOPE has various investigative powers, including the issuance of subpoenas, and just three months ago issued a scathing report against former Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak, a Cheektowaga Democrat, accusing him of “sexually inappropriate behavior” involving former female staffers. In February, the Legislative Ethics Commission slapped him with a $100,000 fine.
Panepinto on Tuesday told reporters in a brief press conference in Buffalo that he was not under investigation, but that there were some “personnel” matters raised and that he was cooperating, though he did not say with whom he is cooperating or specifically about what.
Panepinto was not in Albany for a second straight day on a week that marked the first four-day work week at the Capitol for the Legislature this year. A new state budget is due March 31.
The News earlier Wednesday visited Panepinto’s third-floor office in a legislative office building located across the street from the Capitol. Shortly after, Panepinto left a voicemail message: “I’m at home today, I’m doing some district stuff. I’ll be back in Albany on Monday. Talk to you then.”
Several hours later, Panepinto called to discuss his decision not to run again, and the theories that abound in Albany and Buffalo.
JCOPE, an agency whose board is dominated by appointees of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, declined to comment Wednesday. “I can’t comment whether we do or do not have anything going,” said Walter McClure, a JCOPE spokesman.
Panepinto’s Democratic colleagues in Albany were largely uncertain what was up with the Buffalo lawmaker. He surprised them all Tuesday with his announcement that he’s not seeking another term, which he said was due to “personal and professional” reasons.
“I don’t know anything about an ethics inquiry,” Westchester County’s Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Democratic conference leader, said Wednesday at the Capitol.
JCOPE has the legal authority to investigate complaints against lawmakers and staff. It can issue findings, but not sanctions, though it can refer cases for possible criminal investigation.
On Wednesday, Panepinto gave a lengthy explanation for his decision to leave, which he said was driven by financial pressure on his law practice.
He said his longtime partner has cancer and so Panepinto has had to pick up more cases.
“I’ve got 20 employees here who depend on me,” he said.
The senator, after 15 months in office, said the prospect of serving as a legislator and private attorney while running for re-election in likely combative primary and general elections campaigns this year was simply unworkable.
He said he is well-known in his Senate district – which goes from Grand Island in the north to Brant in the south – but that he needed for a re-election effort to drive up what he said is polling that shows his favorable rating at 42 percent among district voters. That, he said, would take time he doesn’t have now.
“I never anticipated the government-side demands,” Panepinto said.
News Political Reporter Robert McCarthy contributed to this report. email: email@example.com