Even in a state where citizens have become inured to public corruption, the malfeasance that brought down a once-respected Western New York judge is shocking. The crimes committed by a now-former State Supreme Court justice, John A. Michalek, again raise a question that shouldn’t be so vexing: How hard can it be to be an honest public servant in New York?
Michalek, working with political operative G. Steven Pigeon – who was indicted Thursday on nine counts – compromised his integrity and the cause of justice for the pettiest of reasons: He wanted Pigeon’s help finding jobs for relatives and securing an appointment to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court for himself.
Instead, Michalek, a felon after pleading guilty to two counts of bribery, has forfeited his $193,000-a-year judgeship and his right to practice as an attorney. He faces up to seven years in prison, although his promise to cooperate with prosecutors will certainly influence whatever sentence he may receive.
What the judge did to secure those favors would be disheartening in a public servant, but is especially so by a judge, and a once well-respected one, at that. Documents filed in the case say that Michalek and Pigeon were communicating as the judge was hearing a case involving a company represented by Pigeon’s then-law firm. During that time, court documents show, 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.
And all so Michalek could find jobs for family members and then get a promotion he clearly did not deserve. That, at least, is what has been made public so far. Other serious charges may yet be filed, according to sources close to the case.
The guilty plea stems from raids conducted last year at the homes of Pigeon and two other highly placed political operatives: former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant, former chief of staff to Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence. Neither has been charged with any crime.
But on Friday, it was Pigeon in the dock. Like Michalek, he was indicted by State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. In nine charges, he is accused of crimes including bribery and extortion, rewarding official misconduct and grand larceny in the third degree. He pleaded not guilty to all the charges. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Pigeon has always seemed to flirt with political danger and, in that regard, his indictment comes as less of a surprise than Michalek’s.
But the former Erie County Democratic chairman has long been a powerful and influential political player whose connections cross party lines and include Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, businessman and former gubernatorial candidate B. Thomas Golisano, former President Bill Clinton and likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
There is no telling where this investigation will go next, but it has at least one salutary aspect: It is being conducted by state prosecutors, who have historically paid little attention to public corruption in New York. If Schneiderman’s actions represent a change in that dynamic, it is welcome, indeed.