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Pigeon attorneys question validity of 2015 search, attorney general’s jurisdiction

One of the most closely watched criminal trials of recent years is expected to begin next spring as political operative G. Steven Pigeon faces nine counts of bribery and extortion lodged by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

The process is already underway following last week’s filing of pretrial motions by Pigeon’s legal team headed by veteran defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. The attorneys are claiming that a May 2015 search of Pigeon’s home may have been authorized by a deficient search warrant, and they question whether Schneiderman even maintains jurisdiction in the case.

The Attorney General’s Office, in its replies, mostly contends that the demands of the defense are overly broad, outside the scope of the pertinent laws, or will be answered in due time in court proceedings. Other Cambria claims are also expected to be addressed in the trial.

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Several other interesting defense claims and strategies in the case were revealed last week in Cambria’s court papers that will prove key to the proceedings. They include:

• Local developer Nick Sinatra now figures in the case. When Erie County Judge Michael Pietruszka signed the search warrant the afternoon before the raid on the homes of Pigeon and two others, he approved the attorney general’s request to “retrieve any and all documents and records … relating to Steven Pigeon’s unlawful lobbying on behalf of Nick Sinatra.”

Other than Pigeon, Sinatra is the only other person named in the order authorizing the search warrant.

Sinatra would not discuss the appearance of his name in the search warrant, but his public relations representative – Kevin A. Keenan – issued a statement emphasizing Sinatra is not the subject of any investigation.

“Accusations of illegal lobbying are between Steve Pigeon and the attorney general,” Keenan said.

But he added that Sinatra was questioned by investigators in the case more than a year ago. Keenan also said neither he nor Sinatra would answer any more questions because of the ongoing investigation.

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COLUMN: G. Steven Pigeon’s remarkable fall

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• The current investigation, sparked by complaints surrounding a 2013 political committee with close ties to Pigeon, is not the first involving the former Erie County Democratic chairman. The papers reveal he was also questioned by the Erie County District Attorney’s Office and FBI in 2008 regarding complaints of his activities in the 2007 race for Erie County executive.

When nothing resulted from that interrogation, former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha charged in 2008 that two successive district attorneys looked the other way on Pigeon’s alleged violations of election law because of the political operative’s influence. In the seven years Frank A. Sedita III served as district attorney, 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.

• Cambria is already demanding that prosecutors supply him with information about any “deals” or “plea bargains” made with figures involved in the case. Any such revelations are almost certain to figure in what most observers predict will be a spirited Cambria defense.

The defense attorney is especially interested in any arrangements made with former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who pleaded guilty in June to his own bribery-related charges in connection with the Pigeon case and resigned after more than two decades on the bench.

“For instance, former Justice John A. Michalek, by his own admission, was involved in this alleged scheme to influence a public servant,” Cambria argues.

Cambria’s statement also notes that Michalek was “secretly recorded” by the FBI in connection with the case and claims that the judge made false statements “on several occasions.”

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RELATED: ‘Politics above the law’ is crux of controversy on why Pigeon probe wasn’t pursued earlier

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• Cambria appears to be concentrating on excluding from the case much of the evidence seized from Pigeon’s apartment during a raid on May 28, 2015. He cited notations correcting the original search warrant accompanied by the initials “MP,” which he presumes were made by Pietruszka in authorizing the search.

“At some point, unknown to the defense, the warrant was modified by hand to include the residence of Mr. Pigeon and the location was changed to the 10th floor at 1003 Admirals Walk,” Cambria wrote. “However, there is no indication as to when these changes were made or if the search was conducted prior to the changes.”

• Pigeon’s defense asks the attorney general to produce the necessary documents to justify his prosecution of the case.

”The Court of Appeals has recognized that ‘the attorney general … should never be permitted to expand unilaterally the scope of his authority by increasing the file to encompass matters not included therein at the time the executive order was issued,’ ” Cambria argued. “Under such circumstances, courts do not hesitate to dismiss indictments due to the attorney general’s lack of authority to prosecute.”

• Attorney Barry N. Covert is assisting Cambria. Assistant Attorneys General Susan H. Sadinsky and Diane M. LaVallee are handling the case for Schneiderman.

• The Pigeon lawyers contend in the court papers that none of the nine charges is accompanied by any “factual detail” indicating any quid pro quo benefits resulted from Pigeon’s activities.

• Details appear to matter in the case. Regarding the allegation that Pigeon provided Buffalo Sabres tickets as part of his activities, Cambria wants to know “each seat number and the section for the hockey tickets provided.”

• The attorney general, meanwhile, provides its own level of details when responding to Cambria’s request for specific dates and times outlining when Pigeon may have been involved in acts leading to one count of second degree bribery.

Schneiderman’s office then provided 222 dates of “specific acts and communications in furtherance of the offense charged.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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