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COURT HOPEFULS AIDED OTHER PARTIES

Four candidates running for local judicial posts last fall raised almost $146,000 for their campaign efforts.

Their campaigns, however, weren't very tough. Each was unopposed because Democratic and Republican party leaders had worked out deals for cross-endorsements.

So what happened to that campaign money?

Substantial amounts were returned to both party headquarters and to the parties' high priority races and campaign funds, according to campaign finance records.

The documents were filed with the Erie County and New York State boards of elections on behalf of Republican Eugene F. Pigott Jr. and Democrat Patrick H. NeMoyer, both cross-endorsed for State Supreme Court, as well as Democrats Joseph P. McCarthy and Timothy J. Drury, both cross-endorsed for Erie County Court.

The documents show:

All four judicial candidates contributed at least $5,000 each to both the Erie County Democratic and Republican parties to cover the "costs" of the uncontested campaigns.

All four -- including Republican Pigott -- contributed either $500 or $1,000 to the Nanula Leadership Council, a fund closely tied to Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon and his efforts to promote State Sen. Anthony R. Nanula as a statewide candidate.

Roughly $5,200 of Pigott's $55,000 fund was funneled to the sheriff campaign of Republican Patrick Gallivan.

The money solicited by NeMoyer also financed $1,000 contributions to the county's Conservative and Liberal parties, which also granted support on their lines.

While the campaign contribution activity is legal and to some extent occurs regularly, government watchdog groups find the hefty contributions to the other high priority campaigns as new and troubling.

"Certainly, the parties make agreements to cross-endorse candidates, and sometimes it seems there is a quid pro quo for something," said Alan Beck, assistant director of the Manhattan-based Fund for Modern Courts. "If the litmus test for endorsement of judges is that you must support our candidates, then it's the wrong test."

"The whole point of judges is that they should be separate from these things," added Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause/NY. "It's a game people have to walk through to be a judge; business as usual, and it shouldn't be that way."

Party leaders insist that $5,000 payments to their organizations serve as
legitimate reimbursements for staging judicial nominating conventions, as well as printing and distributing designating petitions.

"We assess a reasonable amount for the efforts we put forth on behalf of these candidates," said Robert E. Davis, chairman of the Erie County Republican Party.

Davis emphasized he did not ask Pigott to contribute to the Gallivan campaign, which ranked as last fall's top Republican contest and was bankrolled significantly by GOP headquarters.

"I would not do that," Davis said, noting Pigott's $55,000 in fund raising stemmed mostly from early efforts occurring before the bipartisan endorsement agreements were reached.

Pigeon also defended the payments for campaigns with predetermined outcomes.

"All of this costs us money and overhead," he said. "I see nothing wrong with helping with expenses while running on the line of our party. They are nominated by a political party, and they are not divorced from it."

Pigeon said he personally did not ask any judicial candidate to contribute to the Nanula Leadership Council, which he helped form last summer. However, Pigeon has proven a driving force behind the new fund, soliciting other Democrats earlier this year with letters describing Nanula as a "rising star on the Democratic horizon."

Still, Pigeon said he expected all candidates -- Republican and Democrat -- to purchase fund-raising tickets while running on the Democratic line. In the Nanula case, the tickets sent to judicial candidates were priced at $500 or $1,000, with the resulting contributions ranking far above the normal $50 or $100 tickets associated with most of this fall's fund-raising events.

"Gene Pigott came to the Democratic Party and was endorsed, therefore I asked Gene Pigott to attend Democratic Party events," Pigeon said. "He easily could have been opposed. As far as I'm concerned, you have an obligation to attend party events and be a team player."

Pigott said he bought tickets to high-priced fund-raisers because he wanted to attend events featuring party leaders, adding that he recognized an obligation to support other candidates.

"There was no suggestion by either party that this was any kind of pass through," he said.

Drury, the cross-endorsed County Court judge, emphasized that his campaign took extra precautions to follow all rules. He said he received a bill from both parties in connection with the bipartisan endorsements.

And while he acknowledged he could not judge the true costs of the campaigns to the parties, he accepted the bill in "good faith."

But he also said tickets to fund-raisers from both parties became very much a part of his mail last fall.

"What do we do?" he said. "We get a request, and if the law says you can go, we do it."

Some good government advocates say such practices make a good case for merit selection of judges rather than elections through the political process.

"In these cross-endorsements, especially, you essentially do not give the voters a choice," said Beck of the Fund for Modern Courts. "If it's all tied to these political favors, you're not necessarily getting the best judiciary."

Pigeon disagreed, contending the political process has worked well for years.

"We have a system where people elect judges; that's very important," he said. "And when the system produces judges like Gene Fahey, Kevin Dillon and Pat NeMoyer, that tells you the system is working."

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