The criminal case against G. Steven Pigeon took some surprising turns at federal court Friday, raising a question if federal and state efforts to prosecute the former Democratic Party leader are in trouble.
Federal prosecutors filed a new indictment against Pigeon relating to his alleged bribery of a former state judge. The federal indictment included many of the same allegations that state prosecutors made against Pigeon last year.
But at the same court appearance Friday, federal prosecutors also asked a judge to dismiss a complaint they filed against Pigeon – with much fanfare – in May. Those accusations were that he had orchestrated an illegal $25,000 donation from a Canadian gambling executive to the campaign of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer agreed to dismiss that case "without prejudice," meaning federal prosecutors can seek to re-file the charges later if they want to.
Federal prosecutors gave no explanation – either inside or outside the courtroom – of why they asked for the charges to be dismissed.
But defense attorney Paul J. Cambria said the charges were dropped because prosecutors realized they were "bogus."
"I have always felt that particular case was bogus, and I have said so," he said.
Cambria also said the new federal case against Pigeon was filed because the state case against his client is in serious trouble after a judge in June threw out important evidence from a series of emails between Pigeon and former state judge John A. Michalek. Prosecutors are appealing that decision.
"I believe these new federal charges today are nothing more than an end-around in which the feds are trying to rescue the state case," Cambria said after Pigeon's appearance before Roemer. "I believe they are trying to take that state case from across the street and wash it in the River Jordan here at federal court."
Pigeon, 56, of Buffalo, pleaded not guilty to the new charges, which include felony counts of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud depriving the public of honest services, and violation of the federal Travel Act.
Acting U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy declined to comment on any of Cambria's contentions, saying the new federal indictment "speaks for itself."
“Bribery of a judge strikes at the very core of our democracy,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Blanco. “The independence of the judiciary is paramount to civilized society. Our prosecutors and law enforcement partners will pursue any and all attempts to corrupt our fundamental institutions, including the judiciary.”
The new, 28-page indictment includes a series of email transcripts that provide more detail about Pigeon's relationship with Michalek, who resigned from his judgeship last year after admitting he accepted bribes from Pigeon. Federal prosecutors are hoping that, under federal court rules, the email evidence will remain in their case.
Agents from the Buffalo FBI office have been working closely on the Pigeon probe with the state Attorney General's Office and State Police for more than two years. The federal indictment unsealed Friday charges that between February 2012 and April 2013, Pigeon promised that a member of Michalek’s immediate family would get a job with the 2012 campaign to re-elect President Barack Obama.
Pigeon also is accused of offering to help the same family member obtain employment with the U.S. Department of State and of agreeing to help Michalek pursue an appointment to the appellate division of the State Supreme Court.
In exchange, Michalek allegedly agreed to help Pigeon with favorable judicial decisions for a company represented by Pigeon, and appointing a Pigeon friend to a paid court receivership.
Prosecutors also allege that Pigeon asked for and received a $5,000 "finder's fee" in March 2013 for persuading Michalek to appoint an attorney friend of Pigeon's as the receiver in a legal dispute involving a Clarence golf course.
Michalek agreed to appoint the Pigeon friend as a receiver even though he was not on a list of New York State lawyers qualified to serve as receivers, according to court papers.
The Pigeon friend made more than $39,000 – in payments Michalek approved – for serving as receiver in the case, according to the indictment.
The Pigeon friend who received the receivership is referred to as "Person A" in court papers.
"Unc Steve," Michalek wrote in an email to Pigeon on May 17, 2012. "Oh, by the way, [Person A] wasn't on 'The List'… But … we pushed it through anyway ... have to give them a spec reason, etc. … will figure it out … John."
Asked about Cambria's statements, state Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick said, "We intend to vigorously pursue our prosecution and ultimately prevail.''
She declined to comment further, but a state source maintained that it is not unusual for federal and state prosecutors to bring charges against the same defendant. The source also said both state and federal investigators have been looking at Pigeon for years. Cuomo's office had no immediate comment on the case on Friday. In the past, state Democratic Party officials have said people involved with the Cuomo campaign did nothing improper involving the $25,000 donation that was the subject of the May indictment.
Cambria was asked if he thinks prosecutors will be allowed to use the email evidence from the Pigeon-Michalek conversations if Pigeon's case goes to trial at federal court.
"We'll certainly be trying to prevent that ... There are some complicated legal issues," Cambria said. "We shall see what the future holds."
Pigeon's next scheduled appearance before Roemer is Feb. 9. He told The News in May that he believes he is the victim of a "political witch hunt."
Cambria on Friday accused state and federal prosecutors of "piling on" his client.
Prosecutors said the indictment was the result of an investigation by the FBI under the direction of Buffalo Special Agent-in-Charge Adam S. Cohen; the New York State Attorney General’s Office, under the direction of Eric T. Schneiderman; and the New York State Police, under the direction of Major Edward Kennedy. The case is being prosecuted by Deputy Chief John Keller of the Criminal Division’s Public Integrity Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul E. Bonanno of the Western District of New York.
(News Albany Bureau chief Tom Precious contributed to this story.)