Share this article

print logo

Regime change to put insiders out in the cold <br> State jobs to end for Pigeon, pals

This week, G. Steven Pigeon will wrap up his stint as the $150,000-a-year counsel to Pedro Espada, the State Senate majority leader who lost his re-election bid in the September Democratic primary and then was indicted on embezzlement charges.

But the Buffalo political operative is not the only one losing his state job. Christopher P. Walsh and William J. Callahan, longtime associates from his West Seneca base, also are leaving with Pigeon -- as is David B. Pfaff, another veteran of Pigeon's political adventures.

While Pigeon walks the halls of the State Capitol, the other three work in a dingy corner of the Mahoney State Office Building in downtown Buffalo, out of the upstate office of Espada, a Bronx senator rarely seen in Western New York.

Since earlier this year, the 82-year-old Walsh has worked as Espada's "assistant director of upstate relations," earning either $1,000 or $807 every two weeks in the part-time job, according to the State Comptroller's Office.

When asked about his next political endeavor, Pigeon responds with: "Stay tuned."

In Buffalo politics, the story is familiar. Wherever Pigeon lands, so goes Walsh. Pigeon has called him his "second father."

"Who would you want at your side? People you don't know and don't trust?" Pigeon asked. "I've worked with him for over 30 years. He's a trusted friend and adviser."

When Pigeon was elected chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee in 1995, Walsh became vice chairman. The two have left their footprints through decades of involvement in local and statewide politics:

*In 1989, when Pigeon was elected to the County Legislature from West Seneca, Walsh followed. County records show he earned $57,000 annually during a stint as Legislature's chief of staff.

*In 1994, as Pigeon was pushing Anthony R. Nanula for a seat in the State Senate, the wealthy young businessman and close Pigeon pal staved off a lawsuit from a local printing company by paying off the debt of the West Seneca Democratic Committee, headed at the time by Walsh.

Then in his first act as a West Seneca councilman, Walsh sponsored a resolution asking the state to build exit ramps from Route 400 into an adjacent industrial park owned by Nanula.

*Walsh received $10,000 from Democratic Headquarters in 1998 during the Pigeon regime. The chairman called him "an integral part of headquarters."

*In 1999, State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr., another close Pigeon friend, appointed Walsh as receiver in a foreclosure suit involving a downtown office building. The former ironworker managed the building and its affairs for the next six years, collecting approximately $180,000 in fees along the way, according to court records. Walsh was vice chairman of the Democratic Party at the time he was appointed.

*After the Albany engineering firm Clough Harbour and Associates began pumping money into Pigeon's party coffers in 1997, it hired Walsh as a consultant. At the time, Pigeon defended Walsh's association with Clough Harbour as a "networker."

"That's the system," Pigeon said then. "What's the big deal?"

>Job for daughter

Pigeon's influence on behalf of the Walsh family now extends to the next generation. Earlier this year, the County Legislature hired West Seneca Councilwoman Sheila Meegan -- Walsh's daughter -- as a part-time employee after Pigeon helped fashion a new majority headed by now-Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams.

But that was not Pigeon's only effort on Meegan's behalf. Last year, People for Accountable Government, a political committee headed and financed by Pigeon, sent slick mailers to West Seneca voters supporting her campaign. Meegan said she had no idea about the mailings' origins, even though they carried the return address of Callahan, a former town employee who worked on her campaign.

Callahan, meanwhile, also landed on Espada's payroll. State records show he has worked part time alongside Walsh in Buffalo, also as assistant director of upstate relations.

Pfaff, another longtime Pigeon associate, heads the local Espada staff as director of upstate relations, a $70,000 job that also will end this week. Pfaff previously managed Pigeon's People for Accountable Government, the subject of a 2008 investigation by the Erie County Board of Elections that revealed it had collected and spent tens of thousands of dollars more than Pfaff had disclosed on campaign finance reports.

The county's two elections commissioners eventually subpoenaed the fund's records.

Pigeon defended Walsh as an old friend and a competent worker who has performed admirably in whatever assignment he has assumed.

"I had a very busy position, and I had a long history with them and know their work ethic," Pigeon said of Walsh and Callahan. "And we had a very statewide agenda, including agriculture issues and farm workers' rights. We wanted to make sure we had an upstate component."

>Key role in coup

Walsh, meanwhile, wonders why he should be questioned about honest work he said he performed well. He said he acted as a liaison between Espada and various local unions, and gathered information about Western New York that was then disseminated to other Democratic senators.

"Steve has brought me places, but I can stand on my own and always have," he said. "And if Steve had the opportunity to give someone a job that required certain qualifications and expertise, why not give it to someone he knows and trusts?"

"Jobs are available, and somebody has to fill them," he added.

Pigeon was instrumental in the June 2009 coup that produced Senate gridlock for a month and eventually resulted in Espada becoming majority leader.

Espada and his son, Pedro G. Espada, were indicted earlier this month on state and federal charges of embezzling more than $500,000 from their New York City health clinic and spending the funds lavishly on Broadway shows, a down payment on a Bentley automobile and a pony for a birthday party.

In a largely symbolic move because his term is ending, Espada was immediately stripped of his majority leader title and removed as chairman of the Senate's Housing Committee.

Though Espada has been a lame duck since September, Walsh said he remained on the job last week in the Mahoney Building, acting "at the behest of the new leadership."

>Few tears shed

But that new leadership seems to be shedding few tears over the imminent departure of Pigeon and company.

"The Espada people are gone, and nobody wants them," one Senate Democrat said.

Pigeon, meanwhile, emphasized that no new positions were created to accommodate the Buffalo hirings. Rather, he said, money for the jobs was reallocated from New York City posts in an effort to boost the Democratic Senate's upstate presence.

He also contends the jobs were productive. He said Espada had visited Buffalo during his term as majority leader, though no visit was "advertised."

Sedita said his relationship with Pigeon had nothing to do with his appointment of Walsh to a receivership in 1999.

"I treated that case like any other case," he said. "I would not have appointed him if he were not qualified.

"I never talked to Steve Pigeon about any appointment I ever made, including this one," Sedita said, adding that Walsh did a "superb job."

The judge acknowledged that such appointments often go to lawyers but said some are filled by people with real estate experience. He pointed to Walsh's 20 years in the real estate business and as a West Seneca assessor, and said nobody ever complained about his appointee's performance over six years.

He also said he did not know Walsh was serving as vice chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party at the time he appointed him.

"I didn't know he was vice chairman of anything," he said. "If he had said that, I wouldn't have appointed him."