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Judge rules search warrants valid in Pigeon bribery case

A State Supreme Court judge has rejected G. Steven Pigeon's efforts to invalidate search warrants executed on his home, cellphone and email accounts in 2015 and 2016.

Pigeon argued the warrants were illegally altered and that the judge who signed them was politically biased against him.

Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr.'s ruling deals a blow to Pigeon’s effort to have the nine-count indictment against him dismissed. Pigeon, 56, a well-known political operative, was charged in June with two counts of bribery, one count of theft by extortion and six counts of rewarding official misconduct.

The charges are related to Pigeon’s alleged bribery of former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who pleaded guilty to receiving a bribe in June. Michalek was forced to resign from the bench and still awaits sentencing.

Last August, Pigeon's attorneys filed motions challenging the evidence and seeking dismissal of the entire indictment. Cerio heard arguments in the fall on roughly a dozen defense motions and last week issued a 25-page decision denying all of them in whole or in part, clearing the way for the case to head to trial.

In the hefty filing, defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. centered most of his arguments on the legitimacy of the warrants used to search Pigeon’s waterfront condominium in May 2015, and to review the contents of his cellphone and gain access to his Google email accounts.

Cambria said that handwritten alterations made to the warrants after Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka signed them made the documents invalid. The changes fixed the floor number for Pigeon’s condominium at Admiral’s Walk and noted that the warrant was for the “home,” not “home office.”

Cerio called the changes, initialed by the judge before the warrant was executed, legitimate corrections.

“The court finds that it is the written application which need be subscribed and sworn to by the requested officer, not the search warrant,” Cerio wrote in his decision.

Cerio said Pietruszka had the prerogative to correct the errors on the warrant.

Cerio also found no merit to the defense argument that Pietruszka made the warrants invalid himself merely by signing them. Pigeon has called Pietruszka a “political adversary,” and a defense motion questioned whether he was “neutral and detached," as required by law.

The arguments reach back to the 1990s, when Pigeon, the Erie County Democratic Party chairman in 1996, did not endorse Pietruszka for State Supreme Court. Pigeon’s candidate won, but two years later, Pietruszka won election to Erie County Court. At that time Pigeon allegedly tried to get Pietruszka to pay a $20,000 consulting fee for someone he never hired. Pietruszka didn’t pay it and, Cerio notes, “This particular matter was apparently, according to the submissions, resolved amicably.”

Cerio said he could find “no showing that any perceived bias, prejudice or unworthy motive” inspired Pietruszka to sign the warrants, and that there was no basis for the judge to recuse himself because of “matters which had occurred some thirteen to twenty years earlier.”

Cerio also denied a defense motion to see the entire warrant application, which the Attorney General’s Office argues contains information that is sensitive to its ongoing investigation.

The judge also ruled that the warrants were not “overly broad,” as Cambria alleged.

The warrants sought “any and all documents and records, whether hard copy or in electronic form, relating to Steven Pigeon’s unlawful lobbying on behalf of Nick Sinatra and any documents and financial records, whether in hard copy or electronic form, relating to Steven Pigeon’s involvement with the Western New York Progressive Caucus.”

Cerio said that by including computers and computer-related equipment, a warrant also covered Pigeon’s cellphone, which Cambria had tried to have treated as a separate search location deserving of its own warrant.

Cerio also denied motions to disallow the warrant Pietruszka signed to have Pigeon’s email recovered from Google servers in California, and to the minutes and proceedings from the grand jury that indicted Pigeon turned over to the defense.

The email messages and other material were used by prosecutors to build a case that Pigeon was staying in close contact with then-Justice Michalek when the judge was hearing a case involving a company represented by Pigeon’s then-law firm. The indictment alleges Michalek kept Pigeon apprised of the status of the lawsuits, engaged in ex parte communications with Pigeon about them, and made favorable rulings to protect the interests of Pigeon, his clients and his business associates.

Pigeon, in return, helped Michalek secure Buffalo Sabres tickets, offered to help a relative of the judge get a job, and promised to help Michalek get appointed to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. No such appointment ever happened.

No date is on the schedule yet for Pigeon to return to court.

Cerio, who is based in Madison County, is hearing the case to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest among local judges.

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