Former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek pleaded guilty Wednesday afternoon to taking a bribe and filing a false instrument in a case involving political operative G. Steven Pigeon.
Michalek admitted in court that he solicited and accepted help from Pigeon, including two box seats to a Sabres hockey game as well as $1,000 to a political fundraiser. Michalek also resigned from his $193,000-a-year judicial post he has held for almost two decades.
Dressed in a black suit and a red tie, he appeared before State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. of Syracuse, a judge from outside the Eighth Judicial District who is now assigned to the case. In pleading guilty to a felony count of receiving a bribe in the third degree and incorrect filing in the first degree, Michalek read from a pre-written statement. He was expressionless but spoke so quickly that Cerio asked him to slow down so that the stenographer could catch up. He frowned at times during the proceeding as he sat listening to Cerio.
Pigeon also will face charges in the case. He is scheduled to appear in court before Cerio Thursday morning.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman on Thursday will be in Buffalo to elaborate on the joint state-federal investigation that he has directed since 2014 into Pigeon’s political fundraising activities.
"Today’s proceedings expose a corrupt, multiyear scheme to use political favors to buy off a sitting state judge," Schneiderman said in a statement. "We will continue to root out public corruption wherever we find it. Our public corruption investigation is ongoing."
Cerio said sentencing, scheduled for Sept. 21, could include range from probation to as much as seven years in state prison. In the meantime, he ordered Michalek to surrender his passport.
State prosecutors will contend that an “understanding” existed between Michalek and Pigeon that the judge would engage in “official misconduct which advanced Pigeon’s interests,” according to the source who is familiar with the felony charges. The charges will accuse Michalek of “accepting and agreeing to accept benefits from Pigeon,” the source said.
The News previously reported that investigators were homing in on emails gleaned from May 28, 2015, raids at the homes of Pigeon and two other political operatives – former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant, once the top aide to Rep. Chris Collins. Neither of those two have been charged.
The News also reported that the emails may have outlined Michalek’s efforts to have Pigeon assist in obtaining a government job for a close relative.
The indictment against Michalek confirms those initial reports – and more, according to the source familiar with the charges.
And while the 20-month investigation stemmed from several complaints about Pigeon’s campaign fundraising dating to 2013, the charges to be unveiled Wednesday mention nothing about the original campaign finance complaints and instead involve far more serious charges of bribery, according to the source familiar with the charges.
The charges to be answered by Michalek on Wednesday and Pigeon on Thursday stem from events occurring between February 2012 and about April 20, 2015. They center around three specifics, with information about them stemming from the seized emails:
• Pigeon’s alleged assistance in searching for employment for a close relative of Michalek.
• Pigeon’s alleged assistance in searching for employment and appointed positions for a second close relative of Michalek.
• Pigeon’s alleged assistance with recommendations for Michalek’s appointment to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court.
The emails also show that Pigeon provided Michalek with tickets to hockey games and a political fundraiser, while also showing the two men met for breakfast, lunch and coffee at various times between February 2012 and early 2015.
Based on an email from Michalek to Pigeon sent Sept. 4, 2012, it appears the first relative was hired to work on a political campaign with the help of one of Pigeon’s contacts, the source said. In addition, the emails indicated Pigeon provided help for Michalek’s second relative in searching for employment. The charges also allege that between 2012 and 2015, Pigeon agreed to recommend Michalek for an appointment to the Appellate Division.
While Pigeon was helping Michalek with these personal matters, Pigeon also was asking Michalek for help on lawsuits pending before the judge, the source said. During the time the pair were communicating, the source said, Michalek:
• Kept Pigeon apprised of the status of the lawsuits.
• Engaged in “ex parte” communications with Pigeon about them.
• Sought Pigeon’s advice and input on various issues that arose when the cases came up on his calendar.
• Provided Pigeon with advice as to how the cases should be handled.
• Made favorable rulings in certain situations to protect the interests of Pigeon, his clients and his business associates.
• Selected an attorney of Pigeon’s choosing to handle a receivership.
According to one of the seized emails, Michalek assigned a lawyer recommended by Pigeon to work on a foreclosure, with more emails between Pigeon and Michalek illustrating the judge’s official misconduct and the benefits that Pigeon provided to the judge and his family members, the source said.
In March 2012, Michalek emailed Pigeon regarding a lawsuit pending before him, providing Pigeon with nonpublic details concerning a motion filed by a nonparty to the litigation seeking a protective order from a subpoena served by one of the parties, the source said.
In a written decision issued about two weeks later, Michalek denied the motion for a protective order, just as Pigeon had requested. Michalek then sent Pigeon an email with a copy of the decision attached and thanked Pigeon for “his efforts” on behalf of his first relative looking for a job, the source said.
Pigeon responded by email a short time later with an offer of additional assistance to the relative.
The source also indicated that on Dec. 10, 2012, Michalek emailed Pigeon concerning assistance in securing the Appellate Division appointment. Michalek wrote: “think there is a seat open in App Div..I applied…Normally I wouldn’t mention it to you. . . wonder if you could help.”
That same day, Pigeon replied: “I will start talking u up.”
On Feb. 1, 2013, Pigeon offered Michalek two tickets to box seats for a Buffalo Sabres game, which Michalek accepted. During this time period, the source said, Michalek and Pigeon exchanged emails concerning cases and matters pending before the judge as well as the benefits Pigeon was providing to Michalek and his two relatives. On March 21, 2013, Pigeon offered two tickets to box seats to Michalek for another Buffalo Sabres game, which were accepted.
The source familiar with the charges said that as late as Jan. 22, 2015, one day after Michalek emailed Pigeon to acknowledge that Pigeon was new co-counsel on a case pending before him, the judge emailed Pigeon and told him that he had asked his first relative to send Pigeon a copy of his second relative’s resume. Michalek said he thought the second relative would be great for any government task force or committee on education. The relative then forwarded a resume to Pigeon.