County Clerk David J. Swarts is launching his campaign to topple G. Steven Pigeon as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, with an attack on Pigeon's handling of party finances -- even pointing to party funds spent at a downtown men's store.
Though Pigeon offers counterpoints to all of the 15 questions Swarts raises in mailings to committee members, the debate signals the beginning of a major intra-party squabble in the vacuum left by Dennis T. Gorski's exit as local Democrats' titular leader. As Swarts pins the blame for a string of Democratic losses on Pigeon's leadership, he is bolstering his challenge with charges that Pigeon squandered thousands of dollars in party funds on travel, entertainment and consultants that yielded few results.
"There is a whole series of questions about the appropriateness of these expenditures," Swarts said. "People are amazed that all this money is being raised and spent in ways that are not in the best interest of electing Democrats."
Among Swarts' charges are:
The party is at least $50,000 in debt after the November election, and more than $193,000 has been spent on consultants over the past two years, with few Democratic victories to show for it.
Pigeon's expenditures on travel and entertainment are questionable, as well as money donated to campaigns around the state.
Most consultant money is spent out of the area.
Pigeon inappropriately spent party funds to cover the purchase of a tuxedo.
No proper oversight committee monitors the expenditure of such vast sums of money.
Swarts raises the charges in the context of his now officially declared candidacy for chairman. His Task Force to Renew the Democratic Party drew more than 200 people to a West Seneca meeting last weekend, where the financial concerns occupied center stage in the group's offensive against Pigeon.
Both Swarts and Dennis E. Ward, the Amherst Democratic chairman also involved in the anti-Pigeon movement, say there is no oversight or even discussion about how hundreds of thousands of dollars raised from Democratic contributors are spent.
"At the very least, there has been overspending in travel and entertainment accounts," said Ward. "And it's incredible that nobody from the outside comes in even once a year to review the books."
The questions on finances have become a topic of discussion among area Democrats in recent days as Swarts' committee mailed thousands of fliers around the county. It also sparked a heated exchange between Ward and Pigeon at a meeting of Democratic town chairmen earlier this week.
"These are not questions of legality but of appropriateness," Swarts said.
But the chairman insists that the questions surrounding party finances are more a matter of his own leadership style than anything else. He says nothing improper occurred with party funds on his watch, and that the charges are part of a Swarts-led plan to discredit him.
Pigeon also addressed each point raised by Swarts, justifying every expenditure as in the best interest of the party. First, he said the party has exercised its line of credit with M&T Bank this year in the same way it has during previous post-election periods.
He said Democrats are "tapped out" after the fall campaign, and that a series of fund-raising events beginning this spring will retire the debt in the same manner as previous years.
"By June 1, when the loan is due, that debt will be down to zero," Pigeon said. "For three years in a row, that debt has been paid."
He also calls his opponents' characterization of $193,000 on consultants as "more than a stretch."
"What they call consultants expenses are actually campaign expenses like polling," Pigeon said, pointing to a series of polls the party conducted for various candidates last year.
And he acknowledges that much of that money has been shipped to out-of-town consultants, but for what he says is good reason. There are few phone bank operations in Buffalo specializing in political operations, he said, adding that he seeks only the most professional services he can find to advance the cause of his candidates.
"I will not be put into the parameters of accepting only Buffalo companies when nobody -- including the opposition -- operates under constraints like that," he said. "No one should be criticized for seeking only the very best."
Swarts and company have also jabbed at Pigeon for spending $17,000 of party funds on the comptroller campaign of Anthony R. Nanula, a close Pigeon associate. Pigeon said the stiff opposition put up by Republican Kevin J. Helfer justified the resources dedicated to it, acknowledging that he did put a "priority" on that race.
"What they don't tell you is that Anthony Nanula gave $10,000 of his own money to the party last October," Pigeon said.
But the chairman seems to encounter the most flak from his opponents on the way he has encountered expenses. While he emphasizes that he draws no salary as chairman, does not have an expense account for meals or gasoline, he is forced to defend frequent travels to New York and Washington -- trips he says have raised the profile of Erie County Democrats statewide and nationally.
Swarts calls "excessive" the $16,284 in bills stemming from the Democratic State Convention in Rye Brook in 1998. But Pigeon said most of that stemmed from a party the Erie County delegation threw at the event that allowed networking and raised the county's stature in the eyes of New York Democrats.
"It's a tradition started by (former Chairman) Jim Sorrentino, and our party attracted all the gubernatorial candidates and Senate candidates like Geraldine Ferraro," Pigeon said. "I am consistently trying to promote Erie County, and that party focused attention on us."
In the same way, he said he has incurred airline and hotel bills for trips to New York and Washington that keep Erie County fully represented in state and national party affairs. Several trips ensured that upstate's largest county had a voice in selecting candidates for governor in 1998 in meetings of "Big 13" counties.
"I'm going to continue to do that," he said.
Swarts has been particularly critical of an $1,147 payment to the former Peller and Mure men's store in 1998.
"While the amount is not great in the context of total receipts and expenditures," Swarts said, "it in effect means that more than one contributor to the party had their donations go toward someone's wardrobe rather than for the purpose of electing Democrats."
Pigeon acknowledges that the money went toward the short-notice purchase of a tuxedo when he suddenly realized he had been caught short for a black tie affair hosted by the party. He said his own Friends of Steve Pigeon committee "fronted" the money to him, but that he paid the money back in subsequent donations.
He said in hindsight he might have been better off renting the formal wear, but feels justified in using the committee funds temporarily because of the many black tie affairs he must attend.
"It would be an allowable expense," he said. "And no one can say it didn't come out of my money because that year I put thousands and thousands into the Friends of Pigeon account."
Pigeon said if he has differences with those challenging his leadership, he is ready to defend his practices in the committee races expected to be waged next fall.
"I think it's important we have this visibility; it does the area well," he said. "It's important for the party to be recognized. And in order to be recognized, you have to be there."