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Pigeon case steeped in arguments on evidence

Defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. spent nearly an hour and a half in court Monday asking a judge to quash possible evidence against indicted political operative G. Steven Pigeon.

Pigeon, 56, is accused of nine felonies: bribery in the second and third degrees, grand larceny theft by extortion in the third degree and six counts of rewarding official misconduct in the second degree, a class E felony.

All the charges are related to his alleged bribery of John A. Michalek, 65, a former State Supreme Court justice who pleaded guilty in June for his role in the purported scheme and resigned.

Finally, as the afternoon wore on Monday, State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. interrupted.

“With all due respect, Mr. Cambria,” the judge said at 3:45, “we have to conclude by 4:30, and I have to give the AG’s Office time to respond.”

“Why?” Cambria joked. Then, suggesting that the judge was “clairvoyant,” he said he was done.

Susan H. Sadinsky, an attorney in the state attorney general’s Public Integrity Bureau, was far more succinct in her answers to Cambria’s motions:

• To the motion that prosecutors were withholding material evidence, she answered that although the Attorney General’s Office did have to provide the evidence, there was no law saying when it had to be turned over.

“We are still in the motion phase, there have been no hearings, and no trial date has been set,” Sadinsky argued.

Cambria is seeking, among other things, an alleged secret recording made by the FBI of an interview with Michalek. Cambria said that, according to his source, the judge was caught lying during that interview. He said, “If it turns out it is their opinion it was a lie, but it turns out to be the truth, I may be able to make some use of it,” he said.

• The defense also wants to know the identity of a witness whom the Attorney General’s Office has designated a confidential informant. The defense has been notified that the person has made a deal with federal authorities. Sadinsky countered that it would be imprudent to release the name at this time.

“We submit that there are names of potential witnesses who are targets (of the investigation) within the documents, and to protect the investigation, those documents should not be disclosed,” she said.

• The investigation into Pigeon started in earnest in May 2015 with a search of his waterfront condominium. The defense wants Cerio to rule on whether that search warrant was legal, since the original version of the warrant was altered. It said Pigeon lived on the seventh floor when, in fact, he lived on the 10th floor. A handwritten change was made to the warrant.

Sadinsky pointed out that every other reference to the location in the warrant referred to “Unit 1003,” Pigeon’s actual home, and that there was no Unit 1003 on the seventh floor, although Pigeon did own a unit there.

• Along with the warrants, the defense is challenging the impartiality of the judge who signed them. Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka signed five warrants in the Pigeon case that Cambria calls suspicious.

He also referenced a Sept. 8 report in Artvoice implying that Pietruszka continued to bear ill will toward Pigeon for his allegedly thwarting the judge’s political ambitions in the 1990s, when Pigeon became Erie County Democratic chairman.

Sadinsky scoffed at the idea of a 20-year-old grudge influencing the warrant process. She also pointed out that the alternative weekly newspaper’s ownership may have its own agenda in supporting Pigeon. She identified the Artvoice writer as Niagara Falls businessman Frank Parlato, part-owner of the paper, and noted that “he has something in common with Mr. Pigeon. Mr. Parlato also is under indictment.”

Along with various tax-related charges, she said, Parlato was charged in November with defrauding Sara and Clare Bronfman, heirs to the Seagram fortune, out of $1 million. The women were introduced to Parlato by Pigeon, Sadinsky said.

• Other defense motions call for a modern-day interpretation of procedures designed for a time when there were no smartphones or computers. Cambria says the search warrants were “overly broad” in giving access to Pigeon’s cellphone and computer files. He said the cellphone could be compared with a person’s home and requires a degree of specificity not found in the prosecution’s paperwork. Prosecutors say the search was justified.

Cerio, who is based in Madison County, is hearing the case to avoid any possible appearance of conflicts of interest in the local judiciary. He said he will review the arguments and issue a written decision.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com

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