The Erie County Board of Elections and Rochester billionaire B. Thomas Golisano appear to be hunkering down for a long battle.
Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr on Tuesday asked the Buffalo Sabres owner to answer questions -- under oath -- about his dealings with three political action committees controlled by G. Steven Pigeon, former Erie County Democratic chairman and a Golisano confidant.
If he doesn't, Mohr said, consideration will be given to issuing a subpoena to compel his appearance before the board.
Mohr has accused Golisano's independent committee Responsible New York as well as Pigeon's political action committees -- Citizens for Fiscal Integrity, People for Responsible Government and People for Accountable Government -- of illegally interacting with the State Senate campaign of Democrat Joe Mesi.
The allegations come at a time when Mesi is locked in a tight election race with Republican Michael H. Ranzenhofer, the result of which could determine control of the State Senate come January.
"This is not an investigation at this time of Responsible New York," Mohr told reporters during a news conference at board headquarters in downtown Buffalo. "We want to find out about the interaction between Responsible New York and committees connected to G. Steven Pigeon or the campaign of Joe Mesi."
He noted that his letter to Golisano is co-signed by his Democratic counterpart, Dennis E. Ward.
Mohr's action has, in turn, spawned Golisano's and Pigeon's vehement countercharges of selective enforcement and using the board's power for political purposes.
Golisano late Tuesday said Mohr's move runs counter to Responsible New York's challenge to career politicians and the status quo.
"This is nothing more than a cheap political stunt by politicians paid over $100,000 a year to protect the status quo," Golisano said. "I know the people of Western New York will reject these baseless claims and focus on who has the best plan to create jobs and attract businesses to our community."
Pigeon accused Mohr and Ward of political motivations because Ward's wife, Erie County Legislator Michele M. Iannello, and his brother, Amherst Councilman Daniel J. Ward, were defeated by Mesi in the September Democratic primary, and because Mohr is working for Ranzenhofer's election.
"Ralph Mohr and Dennis Ward should both resign," Pigeon said. "They're becoming part and parcel of campaigns they're supposed to be refereeing. They are both disgraces."
But Mohr denied any political motivation, contending that he is acting on information provided by the latest campaign finance reports that, by their nature, are filed as Election Day nears. He noted, however, that the Pigeon matter is only the second time in the last nine years that the board has considered using its subpoena power to gather information.
Mohr posed several concerns to Golisano that he said need to be addressed:
* An Aug. 7 check for $4,000 issued by Responsible New York to Citizens for Fiscal Integrity, a Pigeon committee that Mohr said did not disclose the contribution. Mohr said both committees have failed to properly report the use of the money.
* An Aug. 7 check for $3,000 from Responsible New York to People for Accountable Government. Mohr says the latter committee has concealed $22,618 in contributions and $19,405 in expenditures.
"This office needs to know what connection Responsible New York or any other persons associated with Responsible New York has to this committee," the commissioners wrote.
* Radio commercials featuring audio tracks of Mesi, with the commissioners questioning how the Responsible New York ad obtained Mesi audio.
* TV commercials featuring video of Mesi, which Mohr displayed for reporters with identical photos of the candidate.
"What we will ask Tom Golisano or Responsible New York is how did the same message rise on the Joe Mesi campaign and the Responsible New York campaign absent coordination," Mohr said.
Pigeon said Tuesday that those images were simply lifted off the Internet for Responsible New York's campaign, reiterating that the group has not coordinated any activities with Mesi, in accordance with election law.
And he said the checks from his committees to the campaigns were written earlier this year, before Golisano had even suggested the creation of Responsible New York.
"Responsible New York has spent close to $4 million in independent expenditures," Pigeon said. "What would be the purpose of laundering $3,000? It's ludicrous."
Mohr said the board contends that Pigeon's committees are involved in a "breakdown of filing requirements." People for Accountable Government, he said, has missed at least 10 filing deadlines. "There can be no other reason except to funnel money from one campaign to another," Mohr said.
Asked whether the timing of his charges is politically motivated, Mohr noted that Golisano is invited to appear before the board "at his convenience" -- before or after next Tuesday's election. "That's Mr. Golisano's prerogative," he said.