John A. Michalek has been a State Supreme Court judge since 1995. And over the past two decades, he has handled hundreds of complex cases, earning the respect of many in the legal community.
In 2005, he received the Outstanding Jurist Award from the Erie County Bar Association's Matrimonial and Family Law Committee.
No questions have been raised about his integrity.
For the past week, Buffalo's legal community has been buzzing about Michalek's relationship with G. Steven Pigeon, a political operative whose dealings are under investigation by the state Attorney General's Office, federal prosecutors, the State Police and the FBI.
Unless the investigation changes course, four sources with close knowledge of the probe say they expect that both Pigeon and Michalek will be accused of bribery-related felony charges. A special grand jury is scheduled to begin hearing evidence Monday.
The sources said the investigation, in part, is focused on email conversations between Pigeon and the judge. Using his state courts email account, sources said, the judge repeatedly asked Pigeon to help a relative of the judge get a government job.
The sources said the email conversations took place during a time when a close political ally of Pigeon had a multimillion-dollar lawsuit pending in Michalek's court.
“There were a lot of emails, and some of them are very problematic for the judge,” said one source close to the case.
Michalek, 64, has not returned repeated calls seeking his comment. He has hired one of the region's most high-profile attorneys, Joel L. Daniels, who declined to comment
Pigeon, 55, also declines to comment, and so do his two high-profile attorneys, Paul J. Cambria and Dennis C. Vacco.
“This is a very serious investigation, with all kinds of tentacles, involving a lot of different people,” said one source close to the case.
Still, Lackawanna native Michalek has impressed many people in the legal community since graduating from Albany Law School in 1976.
He started out as a prosecutor with the Erie County District Attorney's Office, rising to chief of the Justice Courts Bureau.
He ran a small but highly regarded law firm in Hamburg for several years, and then served for a year as the town's interim supervisor. After serving briefly as town attorney, he was selected by political party leaders to become a State Supreme Court judge in 1994.
He has been elected to two 14-year terms to an office that now pays $193,000 a year. Thanks to cross-endorsements he received from party bosses, he has never faced a contested election.
Three local attorneys – Steven M. Cohen, John J. Molloy and Daniel J. Henry – said they were astonished to hear that Michalek was the subject of an investigation. All three described Michalek as a man of integrity.
“He's a good judge,” Cohen said. “I've practiced before him some 20 years. I haven't always agreed with his decisions, but I've never seen him do anything that seemed to be tainted.”
“When I worked with him, he was always careful, always checking to make sure that we were doing things the right way from an ethical standpoint,” said Henry, a criminal defense lawyer who was Michalek's law partner for several years in the 1990s.
Michalek's older brother, the late James Michalek, went to prison in 1993. James Michalek was convicted of state and federal charges that he cheated banks and senior citizens out of millions of dollars.
James Michalek – who failed to show up for a planned sentencing in 1992 and led the FBI on a cross-country chase that lasted several months – was sentenced to both state and federal prison terms, for a total of eight years and eight months behind bars. He also was disbarred.
“In light of what happened with his brother going to prison, I've always felt that Judge Michalek went the extra mile to avoid any kind of improper activity, to conduct himself in an honorable manner,” Cohen said.
According to his biography on a state court website, Michalek has been involved in many civic activities. He served on the board of trustees of Erie County Community College and also at St. Francis High School. He has been active with the St. Bernadette's School Athletic Association, the Canisius College Alumni Association and the Albany Law School Alumni Association. An avid basketball player for many years, he also served as a grammar school basketball coach.