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Robert McCarthy: Politics, the law, and more politics

There was a time, here at the Politics Column, when we devoted this weekly space to – well – politics.

But lately, indictments and court appearances comprise the bulk of political news around here. Maybe we should call it the Crime Column.

Indeed, former Erie County Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon found himself before a judge for the third time in 10 months on Monday – this time to answer a federal complaint. He joins a long list of others directly or indirectly connected to politics now facing charges in state and federal courts.

That’s why it’s almost refreshing to report that one investigation centered in New York City with Erie County tentacles appears to have ended without further action. Last September, The Buffalo News reported that law enforcement officers from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (we have since learned) and the FBI interviewed Erie County Democratic officials as part of a probe of campaign spending in the 2014 elections for State Senate.

The News correctly reported the local Dems were considered witnesses and not targets. Nothing ever developed from the probe, and it appears it won’t. A few weeks ago, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance Jr. announced his investigation of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s political operation aiming at a Democratic Senate in Albany did not warrant charges. His letter to the state Board of Elections also noted that former Sen. Marc Panepinto’s campaign did not receive any funds from a county committee, pretty much answering questions being asked in Buffalo last fall.

“They were not investigating us,” Democratic Headquarters attorney Margaret Murphy said last week. “It was more like they were soliciting information from us as part of their investigation.”

It is interesting to note, however, how such developments take on a life of their own. The close Amherst-based Assembly race between Republican incumbent Ray Walter and Democrat Steve Meyer was marked by mailers linking Meyer to a Democratic organization “under investigation” as part of the de Blasio probe.

Chairman Jeremy Zellner was not keen on discussing the situation in September, but now notes Vance’s apparent absolution clears his party.

Nevertheless, Erie County’s rough-and-tumble politics may have cost him an Assembly victory in the process.

“The Republicans used it,” Zellner says now, “and it cost us a lot of money.”

• Bernie Nowak, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ chief local spokesman during the hotly contested Democratic presidential primary in New York last year, has not faded from the scene. A Sanders organizer in Erie County and delegate to the Democratic National Convention last July, Nowak has been endorsed by Cheektowaga Democrats for Town Council in a move that will preserve the voice of the Sanders crowd in Western New York.

• Erie County Conservatives delivered a stinging rebuke Tuesday to three legislators who voted for the Poloncarz administration’s financing plan for a new emergency room at Erie County Medical Center – an especially touchy subject for Chairman Ralph Lorigo and his son, Joe, Legislature majority leader.

Peter Savage, a Buffalo Democrat, emerged as part of the rejected trio. But he sidestepped a question on whether he even sought the Conservative nod this year. “You explore all options,” he said. “I was told I would have the opportunity to interview for it in the future, but they have made their decision and I respect that.”
• Critics of Democratic sheriff candidate Bernie Tolbert will never list him as a prolific political fund-raiser. But Tolbert unveiled an impressive financial committee a few days ago headed by James Tilley, former president of Evans Bank, along with Peter Grogan, managing director at United Capital Financial Advisors; attorneys John Elmore, John Horn and Jonathan Gardner; former Buffalo Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson; Dr. Richard J. Lee, dean emeritus at SUNY Buffalo State; Catherine Schweitzer, executive director of the Baird Foundation; and Leslie Shatkin, a Democratic activist from Amherst.

Tolbert will need every penny this crew can raise against incumbent Tim Howard.

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