At least three prosecuting agencies were asked over the years to focus on political mastermind G. Steven Pigeon.
Their inquiries either sputtered, stalled or failed to launch. A governor passed, too.
Here in Pigeon’s backyard, Democrat Frank A. Sedita III was asked to go after Pigeon but didn’t. That decision looms larger over Sedita’s legacy as Erie County district attorney now that New York’s attorney general last week charged Pigeon for the first time ever. It was the largest development yet in a state and federal probe of public corruption.
Pigeon, 55, is a former county Democratic Party chairman who regularly undermined the party faction that occupied party headquarters after he was squeezed out of the post in 2002.
The candidates he targeted and their campaign managers – usually Democrats – believed they could prove illegal collusion and hidden campaign donations and would present their proof to anyone who would listen.
Why didn’t the district attorney act?
Sedita, now a State Supreme Court justice, is forbidden from talking about cases. But in the seven years he ran the office, he maintained that the District Attorney’s Office lacked the resources to take on large investigations of election-law violations, though he would prosecute credible cases brought to him by an investigating agency.
To Sedita, however, Pigeon wasn’t just any political player. They had a connection.
Friend of the family
Pigeon and Sedita’s father, the late State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr., had been friends for years. When the younger Sedita first ran for district attorney in 2008, operatives from the Pigeon team circulated his nominating petitions and protected them from challengers.
Some of Pigeon’s deep-pocketed friends, such as billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, contributed to the Sedita campaign. Because the Seditas and Pigeon had a relationship with the leaders of Erie County’s Conservative Party, the conservatives backed the younger Sedita, and he used that to leverage the Democratic endorsement and to win the general election.
In that race, Pigeon became a campaign issue. The county’s Republican elections commissioner said he had found new irregularities with a Pigeon-controlled political fund that merited law enforcement’s attention. One of Sedita’s challengers asserted that he was too cozy with Pigeon to ever prosecute him if elected.
“If I felt there was a legitimate question as to my objectivity, I would not hesitate to ask the court to appoint a special prosecutor,” Sedita responded at the time, deflecting the criticism.
He went on to say that the accusations being flung at Pigeon didn’t seem serious enough to merit a special prosecutor or even further discussion.
In short, Pigeon was on the ground floor of Frank A. Sedita III’s first political victory.
When Sedita’s father administered the oath of office to the newly minted DA, he took a moment to acknowledge the efforts of Steve Pigeon.
Over the following years, Pigeon stood at the center of many storms.
In 2009, the Erie County Board of Elections examined his role with an independent political committee that was fueled by Golisano’s fortune and poured more than $4 million into the previous year’s state legislative races.
The county board sent its findings to the State Elections Board. The state board referred the matter to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office, to which the state board would send matters that could involve criminality. But no charges against Pigeon sprung from the Albany DA.
Then in 2010, the special counsel to then-Gov. David A. Paterson reported that Pigeon had engaged in “a pattern of election law violations in Erie County.” But Paterson did not appoint a special prosecutor.
And in 2014, residents of Erie County presented their knowledge of Pigeon’s electioneering to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Cuomo disbanded the commission before it showed any sign of acting on Pigeon, who was a former Cuomo ally and adviser.
In speaking publicly about the accusations leveled at him over the years, Pigeon argued that he knew the election law better than his critics, and he was doing nothing illegal.
But the wheels started moving toward his indictment when the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, gathered up the Moreland Commission’s work for a multifaceted corruption investigation.
The State Attorney General’s Office, on a parallel track, began examining state election law matters and collected the evidence generated on Pigeon in Erie County.
In March 2015, state agents searched Pigeon’s home and the homes of two others engaged in the business of political campaigns, former Deputy Mayor Steven Casey and Christopher M. Grant, who had served as chief of staff to Rep. Chris Collins.
The investigators seized computers, which harbored emails revealing an ongoing exchange of favors between Pigeon and State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who sought jobs for relatives and a good word as he tried to move up the judicial ladder.
Pigeon, in turn, received access to the judge when friends and associates had cases before him, State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said.
Michalek on Wednesday pleaded guilty to two bribery-related counts, resigned from office and agreed to assist in the case against Pigeon.
On Thursday, Pigeon pleaded not guilty when arraigned on nine felonies linked to the bribery scheme.
While bribery is not what Sedita was asked to investigate, Schneiderman said he’s not done yet.
“Anyone who breaches the public trust will be held accountable by my office,” Schneiderman said. “Our investigation is ongoing.”
Appeals to Sedita
Sedita did successfully prosecute election law matters.
He prosecuted former Buffalo Common Council Member Brian Davis for pocketing campaign funds; Joseph A. Mascia for failing to file campaign reports when running for Assembly, and Daniel M. McCandless, the former Democratic Party chairman in Cattaraugus County, for forging signatures on petitions. In that case, Sedita acted as a special prosecutor.
But when one of his assistants, Mark A. Sacha, went public early on to assert that the newly installed district attorney was giving Pigeon a pass, Sedita fired him. Sedita’s predecessor, Frank J. Clark, had convicted county executive candidate Paul T. Clark – no relation – of a misdemeanor for accepting an illegal campaign donation, but Sacha believed Pigeon’s prints were all over the conspiracy and argued he should be charged, too. He urged Sedita to take up where Frank Clark left off.
Sacha later presented his information to the Moreland Commission. So did Betty Jean Grant, a Democratic county legislator who wrote about what she perceived as chicanery by a Pigeon-controlled political committee when she ran for re-election in 2013. Grant believed she was targeted because she had proven a viable threat to beat State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo, whom Pigeon favored, in a Democratic primary.
Grant said she wrote to Sedita with her allegations about the Pigeon-connected Western New York Progressive Caucus. She thought he would be interested both as the county’s top prosecutor and as a member of the Moreland Commission. He never responded, she said.
What does this litany say about Sedita’s record as the Erie County district attorney?
“He was not willing to put forth the hard work to make sure that justice prevailed in all cases,” Grant said. “I think he let cronyism and politics and being connected to certain people shadow his objectivity.”
Sacha, who is running to become district attorney this year, said Sedita respected Pigeon’s connection to his family, and Pigeon’s contributions to his own political success, more than he respected the independence that a prosecutor must maintain.
“Conflicts of interest mean something,” Sacha said. “We are taught that in law school. It is not something that should be ignored ... He had obvious conflicts, and he ignored them. At the same time, he had the potential to be a decent district attorney. But he wasn’t.”
Leonard Lenihan led the Erie County Democratic Party when Sedita ran for his first term. He says he cannot say why Sedita never pursued a case against Pigeon, who worked to thwart Lenihan at many turns.
But he said Pigeon grew more emboldened in those years when law enforcement authorities failed to act on accusations that campaign donations and expenses were under-reported, and that Pigeon’s independent political committees were colluding with designated campaign teams when state law forbids collusion.
“Steve was a guy who got farther and farther out on a limb as the years went by,” Lenihan said.
As he sees it, Pigeon each year dreamed up some new way to foil candidates backed by Democratic headquarters.
“Things got even more convoluted, worse and more dramatic. And finally, I think Steve’s luck ran out.”
But, Lenihan added, “Sedita wasn’t the only one that didn’t take action.”