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Fired DA puts Sedita deposition in lawsuit

When Frank A. Sedita III was mulling a run for Erie County District Attorney, one of the first people he met with was political operative G. Steven Pigeon.

Turns out Pigeon was more than just a friend and political ally.

The Democrat also was at the center of an investigation by prosecutors in Sedita's office.

One of those former prosecutors claims Sedita's meetings with Pigeon provide a glimpse into why two successive DAs -- Sedita and predecessor Frank J. Clark -- passed on prosecuting Pigeon for election law violations in a money-laundering scheme.

"They had a relationship with the target," said Mark A. Sacha, who is suing Sedita in federal court. "Neither one of them should have made any decisions on this case because they owe their position, in part, to Pigeon."

Sedita's acknowledgment that he met with Pigeon twice during the DA investigation was part of a deposition he recently gave in Sacha's two-year-old wrongful termination suit against him.

Sedita acknowledged meeting with Pigeon in May and June of 2008 as he began his campaign to replace Clark, who had decided a few days earlier not to run for re-election.

During his testimony, Sedita said he was unaware of the DA's investigation involving the former Erie County Democratic Party chairman until months later.

"Did I meet with Steve Pigeon early on? Sure, I met with a lot of people," Sedita told The Buffalo News. "But I didn't know anything about the investigation and I certainly didn't talk about the investigation with Mr. Pigeon."

Sedita's denials, according to Sacha, are in sharp contrast to the testimony provided by Mary Beth DePasquale, a prosecutor who worked with Sacha on the election law investigation. He says DePasquale confirmed that other people in the DA's office were well aware of the probe.

To hear Pigeon talk, his meetings with Sedita were simply gatherings of family friends and political allies. He also suggested Sacha's allegations are nothing more than the words of a disgruntled employee who was demoted and eventually fired by Sedita.

"It's ridiculous," Pigeon said of the allegation of a quid pro quo. "It's no secret I've been a long-time supporter of the Sedita family."

Sacha, who was fired after he went public with his allegations of political favoritism, used Sedita's statements to raise questions about why he hasn't prosecuted Pigeon.

He also used Sedita's deposition to raise the issue of the statute of limitations on Pigeon's alleged crimes. He said the time for prosecuting Pigeon will run out in August or September and that it's possible Pigeon may never be prosecuted, even if Sacha wins his lawsuit.

That possibility is exactly why Pigeon chose to help Sedita four years ago, Sacha says. He said Pigeon knew Clark's decision not to run for re-election could result in a new DA willing to prosecute him.

"Pigeon was motivated by the fact that he knew he had criminal exposure," Sacha said. "I have no doubt in my mind that in meeting with Sedita, he had that in mind."

Sedita's long-awaited deposition has been the subject of legal wranglings for several months. In February, a federal judge ordered him to answer questions about a secret memo at the center of Sacha's lawsuit seeking his job back and alleging political favoritism.

Sedita said the 5-year statute of limitations in the case is irrelevant because Sacha never gave him a single piece of credible evidence against Pigeon. He also noted that three other prosecutors in his office reviewed Sacha's memo and came away convinced there's no case against Pigeon.

"Apparently there's a difference of opinion between Mark Sacha and every other professional prosecutor who's reviewed the case," he said.

The relationship between Sedita and Pigeon, and to a lesser extent the one between Pigeon and Sedita's father, retired State Supreme Court Justice Frank A. Sedita Jr., has become a focal point in Sacha's civil suit.

Sacha said Sedita downplayed his father's relationship with Pigeon during his deposition and suggested the reality is that the two men are much closer than Sedita let on.

Pigeon doesn't deny his close friendship with the former judge, which is one of the reasons he was so willing to help the younger Sedita.

"His father has said publicly that I'm like a son to him," Pigeon said. "Why wouldn't I support him?"

Sedita also acknowledged meeting with Erie County Conservative Party Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo in May of 2008 to talk about that party's political endorsement.

That meeting, Sacha says, also posed an ethical dilemma for Sedita because Lorigo, a lawyer, later represented Paul T. Clark, the former West Seneca town supervisor and one of the central figures in the DA's election law probe.

"He was violating his code of ethics over and over again," Sacha said of Sedita.

Lorigo says he remembers meeting with Sedita in 2008 but that Sacha's take on what happened at that meeting is completely off base.

He denied promising Sedita the Conservative endorsement as part of a deal that Sacha claims involved Pigeon and Joel A. Violanti.

Violanti is a federal prosecutor and the son-in-law of William A. Delmont, the longtime Conservative Party leader who died last month.

"Never happened," Lorigo said of the allegations. "Our decision was never bargained for and certainly never paid for. In the end, we felt Frank Sedita was the best candidate."

Lorigo said his legal work on behalf of Paul Clark was minimal and that he never saw his meeting with Sedita as a conflict of interest.

Violanti, an assistant U.S. Attorney, also denied any part in a deal for Sedita's endorsement. Sacha claims Violanti was in line to become Sedita's first assistant DA.

Sedita acknowledged meeting with Violanti to talk about a job but said the meeting took place after his election. He also noted that Violanti remained a federal prosecutor, an indication there was no deal.

At the core of Sacha's suit is a 13-page memo detailing Pigeon's alleged crimes during the 2007 race for county executive.

Sacha, who wrote the memo when he was still a prosecutor, wants to make it public. He claims it shows how Pigeon laundered a $10,000 contribution from the campaign of former County Executive Joel A. Giambra to Paul Clark's unsuccessful campaign.

Sedita, who has been fighting to keep the memo secret, says the memo is a grand jury document he's legally obligated to keep confidential.

"The whole thing is in this guy's obsessive mind," Pigeon said of the allegations in Sacha's memo.

Pigeon said the money he's accused of laundering was not a political contribution from Giambra but rather payment for services that Pigeon provided.

In his suit, Sacha contends that by the summer of 2008, he had concluded that both Pigeon and Timothy M. Clark, brother of Paul Clark, were guilty of felony and misdemeanor violations of state criminal and election laws.

Paul Clark, who failed to get the Democratic endorsement for county executive, took a misdemeanor plea deal in a separate case, but Pigeon and Tim Clark were never prosecuted. Tim and Paul Clark are not related to Frank Clark.

Sacha said the one aspect of Sedita's deposition that surprised him was the location of his first meeting with Pigeon in 2008 -- the West Seneca home of Pigeon's mother.

Sacha said that was the same place where Pigeon met with political operative Donald Turchiarelli to hatch the money laundering scheme. Turchiarelli was later given $20,000 to conduct phone bank operations on behalf of Clark's campaign.

Pigeon said he held a lot of political meetings at his mother's house in 2008 because his father had died three years before and he wanted to spend more time with his mother.

Sacha's suit contends that his dismissal from the DA's office violated his First Amendment right to free speech and his rights as a whistle-blower. He's seeking $300,000 in damages and his old job back.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com