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Pigeon snare strikes fear across political landscape

Steve Pigeon is snared. As you read this, a legion of politicians, elected officials and even judges are holding their breath and crossing their fingers.

There was a whiff of something odd Thursday in the summer breeze. It was the scent of fear.

The indictment of the longtime political operative was a long time coming. And it undoubtedly sent shock waves through our eminently corruptible political class. Plenty of folks are afraid. Very afraid.

Flop sweat isn’t a good look for anybody, and Pigeon’s tentacles of influence reach far and wide. There will almost certainly be other shoes that drop in what Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, termed an “ongoing investigation.” The concern of many political types is that one of those shoes will have his or her name on it.

“This is not,” noted Schneiderman at a downtown news conference, “the only part of the investigation.”

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Already down is ex-State Supreme Court Justice John Michalek. The 65-year-old judge pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking bribes from Pigeon in a classic mutual back-scratching scheme. In return for the plea deal, Michalek – who resigned and faces up to seven years in jail – is expected to be a star witness in Pigeon’s coming trial on nine felony charges.

Michalek likely won’t be the last elected official convicted of sinking too deeply in Pigeon do-do.

Computers seized by authorities in a search of Pigeon’s waterfront condo last year held evidence leading to the judge’s takedown and Thursday’s indictment. Instead of limiting themselves to phone calls and chats over coffee, the judge and Pigeon were either dumb or arrogant enough to chronicle their sleazy horse-trading with emails and texts. The trail of evidentiary bread crumbs secured Michalek’s demise and could lead Pigeon – who pleaded not guilty to all charges – straight to the Big House. A conviction could bring a 15-year sentence.

If other politicos were similarly incautious in their deal-making and favor-trading with Pigeon, the corruption roll call has just begun.

No local political figure has a reputation for slime extending wider, deeper and longer than Pigeon. The ex-county Democratic Party chairman’s stomach-churning reign of influence dates to the 1980s. Like the obsessive baseball fan who knows the lifetime batting averages of every major leaguer, Pigeon has a Google-like grasp of the vast web of connections behind virtually every local politician – down to which cousin or nephew of which town or village board member was gifted with a patronage job.

He leveraged that connect-the-dots understanding of the ways and means of political favoritism and power-gathering to cut deals, climb the political food chain and land “consultant” gigs and staff positions. His predominantly Democratic reach extended as high as adviser/fundraiser to Bill and Hillary Clinton and Andrew M. Cuomo. There’s no suggestion of wrongdoing by the governor or likely Democratic presidential nominee, both of whom presumably merely valued Pigeon’s grasp of the local political landscape. The point is, plenty of smaller fish – with their eyes on higher office or cushy patronage jobs – swam in Pigeon’s murky waters.

Indeed, the lust for a vacant appellate court slot was Michalek’s undoing. Part of the quid pro quo of handing a lucrative receivership to a Pigeon crony was the master manipulator’s promise to talk up the judge – in vain, thankfully – for the position.

Ex-prosecutor Mark Sacha, who is running for county district attorney partly on an anti-Pigeon platform, is hardly objective. But he got it right Thursday when he said of Michalek and everyone else who threw in with Pigeon: “They sold their souls, and they sold their jobs, for what (he) could give to them.”

Among those connected to the investigation into Pigeon’s alleged election-law violations are Steve Casey, formerly Mayor Byron W. Brown’s right-hand man; Chris Grant, ex-staffer to Rep. Chris Collins; and Kristy Mazurek, a state Assembly candidate who was treasurer of Pigeon’s independent political committee. That probe is on a separate track from the bribery charges that led to Pigeon’s indictment and Michalek’s downfall – a train that continues to roll.

As the FBI’s Adam Cohen put it, “This is only one prong of an active investigation.”

As big a story as this already is, the roof blows off if Pigeon – if he feels he can’t beat the charges – cuts a deal in return for naming names. Prosecutors would need a trawler net to snare all of the fish Pigeon could send their way.

It never ceases to astound me how cheaply politicians can be bought. For Michalek, the sale price was mostly jobs for a couple of relatives and suite seats to a pair of Sabres games. For that, he flushed his career, professional reputation and a $193,000 annual paycheck. For a presumably smart guy, it was monumentally dumb.

It merely reinforces the notion that corruption is part of our political culture, the backwash of a campaign system fueled by money and dependent on influence. The seemingly endless roll call of dirty politicians – with Albany titans Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos among the recently convicted – is to my mind a flashing-neon endorsement of public campaign financing. Until that happens, the burden is on prosecutors to prop up the public trust and slow the descent into complete cynicism by disinfecting the political process.

Answering the bell was the state Attorney General’s Office, which boldly ventured where other prosecutorial bodies long feared to tread. Closing the cage around Pigeon doesn’t merely target a serial slimeball. It strikes fear throughout the political-animal kingdom.