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New effort seeks probe of Pigeon committee

Critics of G. Steven Pigeon have claimed for more than a decade that the former Erie County Democratic chairman has funneled tens of thousands of dollars to favored candidates through independent committees, circumventing state laws that prohibit coordination with candidates’ campaigns.

But over the years, Pigeon and his tactics have emerged unscathed and even empowered as state courts, boards of elections and law enforcement either approved, complained without result, or never said a word.

Now, another independent political committee financed mostly by Pigeon is roiling Democratic circles after two candidates it backed defeated in the Sept. 10 primaries candidates endorsed by the local Democratic Party. The allegation is that the Pigeon committee was spending money to promote candidates for sheriff and County Legislature and coordinating that spending with the candidates, which would violate state law.

The former party chairman insists he has always operated within election law. “It’s what I’ve been doing for years, it’s been looked at time and time again, and it’s never gone anywhere,” Pigeon said. “It’s not because some prosecutor is afraid of me, but because I follow the rules.”

But two Erie County legislators seek a new avenue of investigation, filing a complaint with the Moreland Commission, a state investigative panel that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created this year to root out public corruption.

If the state panel were to launch an investigation, it would set up an interesting scenario.

That’s because the Cuomo-created Moreland Commission would be probing a political committee trying to defeat candidates endorsed by Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, who is no friend of Cuomo’s political operation.

And if Pigeon did come under scrutiny, it would mean the Cuomo-appointed members would be investigating someone who has contributed $50,000 to the governor’s own campaign treasury.

Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant and Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, both Buffalo Democrats, are asking the commission to probe the WNY Progressive Caucus, an independent committee run by Pigeon associate Kristy Mazurek. It has collected almost $270,000 since its inception last month.

“Given the history of the individuals involved, this entity is a ‘poster child’ for the need to drastically improve the enforcement of existing laws,” Grant and Hogues wrote to commission officials. “Without such enforcement, violators are encouraged to repeat their conduct with impunity.”

Zellner echoes their complaint. “I would hope they look into coordination on this campaign, any overspending for the candidates, and whether these really were independent expenditures,” he said.

A spokeswoman said the Moreland Commission received the Grant-Hogues complaint but would not comment further.

The law

State election laws try to create an even playing field, placing limitations on contributions to candidates. But independent committees can spend unlimited amounts of money.

So if there was coordination between a candidate and an independent committee that spent money promoting that candidate, that would violate election law.

Over the years, several candidates and politicians have criticized Pigeon’s independent committees, suggesting his committees had crossed that line.

Erie County’s Democratic and Republican elections commissioners jointly complained in 2010 that a Pigeon committee was violating election law through Thomas Golisano’s Responsible New York committee that spent on behalf of candidates.

The complaint was eventually referred to Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares and went nowhere.

And in 2009, former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha charged that two successive district attorneys provided Pigeon an election law pass because of his political power. Sacha asked then-Gov. David A. Paterson to appoint a special prosecutor. Paterson declined, but his counsel – Peter J. Kiernan – referred the case to the U.S. attorney in Manhattan after declaring “a pattern of violations of election law, some of which may involve money laundering or deliberate evasion of requirements of the election law” in Erie County.

Federal prosecutors also never took action.

Now, however, the Moreland Commission is empowered to investigate, subpoena and prosecute because its members are deputized as assistant attorneys general.

Dobson campaign

The recent complaint stems from the 2013 primary campaigns, when the WNY Progressive Caucus spent tens of thousands of dollars in support of candidates running against individuals backed by Zellner and the local party leaders.

The beneficiaries of Pigeon’s caucus included Richard E. Dobson, who defeated Bert E. Dunn, the party-backed candidate for sheriff.

In fact, Pigeon’s committee spent more than 10 times campaigning for Dobson than what Dobson’s campaign spent during the last reporting period.

Campaign finance records show Dobson’s campaign committee spent about $6,000 in the reporting period ending Aug. 30, and raised about $50,000 for the entire campaign – far below the six-figure amounts most candidates budget for a countywide effort. Dobson purchased no television advertising, also deemed essential by most political veterans for a post like sheriff.

Meanwhile, local television station records indicate that Pigeon’s WNY Progressive Caucus bought more than $77,000 in advertising in support of Dobson’s candidacy.

Dobson campaign manager, James J. Eagan, who is also secretary of the Democratic State Committee controlled by Cuomo, said the campaign had nothing to do with the Pigeon group and never planned on buying television time.

Now Zellner and the county legislators want the commission to determine if the candidates and the Pigeon committee illegally coordinated their activities – which Pigeon vehemently denies.

Zellner said Dobson launched his campaign without enough money for television. In fact, Zellner said his forces working with the party leaders candidate, Bert D. Dunn, thought Dobson’s lack of funds indicated he had “thrown in the towel.”

“He was relying on something,” Zellner said. “You can’t have a race where you don’t even have $10,000 on hand until the week before. It really makes you wonder.”

Zellner said other candidates who benefited from the Pigeon’s caucus committee – like Barbara Miller-Williams who defeated Hogues in the primary and Joyce Nixon who lost to Grant – also raised little of their own funds.

“I don’t think she raised a dime,” Zellner said of Miller-Williams. “But her signs went up all over the place.”

State records indicate Miller-Williams raised about $3,375.

Pigeon caucus donors

Much of the money that WNY Progressive Caucus raised came from Pigeon and others who are on the outs with the Democratic Party leaders.

Campaign finance records show Pigeon contributed or loaned almost $96,000 of his own money to the committee.

In addition, State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, who eked out a victory against Grant in 2012 and could face her again in 2014, gave $85,000 from his campaign account to Pigeon’s caucus.

“Everything was done not only to the letter but the spirit of the law,” Kennedy said.

Other contributors to Pigeon’s caucus include AJ Wholesale, a Seneca tobacco dealer on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, which gave $30,000.

And an organization controlled by Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank C. Max Jr., who unsuccessfully challenged Zellner for the county chairmanship last year and says he will run again next year, gave $1,500.

In addition, two donations totaling $9,000 were made directly to Dobson’s campaign fund from a committee called Democratic Action, which has ties to Pigeon. He gave $1,800 to that committee in 2011, and Kennedy gave $1,500.

Records also show a $2,000 donation in 2010 to Democratic Action by Joseph W. Carosella, a Niagara Falls attorney who also gave $3,000 to the caucus this year.

State campaign finance records also indicate that $1,350 from Pigeon’s political consulting firm – Landen Associates – went directly to the Dobson campaign.

Pigeon rebuttal

Pigeon and Mazurek emphasize that their committee never “coordinated” with the Dobson campaign or with legislators running against candidates endorsed by the Zellner organization. They also point out their “unauthorized committee” can spend unlimited amounts absent any coordination.

Mazurek has acknowledged she was formerly active in this year’s legislative campaigns but backed off when she became treasurer of the WNY Progressive Caucus. Since then, she said she only worked on the campaigns in a volunteer capacity.

Absent acting in concert with the campaigns, she and Pigeon insist they are free to raise and spend any amount they want.

Pigeon labeled the Grant-Hogues letter a “frivolous action” and questioned whether Cuomo’s Moreland Commission is even charged with probing political campaigns.

“The charge is to investigate corruption of public officers,” Pigeon said, “not to be a campaign watchdog. That power still lies with the Board of Elections.

“Anybody can request an investigation,” he added. “That doesn’t mean there are grounds.”

Potential probe

A potential Moreland Commission probe is significant because Board of Elections officials rarely investigate complaints of election law violations. The boards have limited resources and virtually no investigative personnel.

And while other district attorneys around the state have investigated and prosecuted election law violations, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III has insisted that his office is charged with prosecuting – not investigating – crimes. He maintains the Board of Elections or police agencies should conduct the probes.

“If we have credible evidence, admissible in a court of law that demonstrates a crime has been committed, we prosecute,” Sedita said. “I don’t do investigations of murders, I don’t do investigations of rapes, and I sure as hell don’t do election law violations.”

The district attorney said the Board of Elections should properly probe such allegations, though he acknowledged the District Attorney’s Office did initiate an investigation and prosecution of former West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark’s unsuccessful campaign for county executive in 2007.

“That’s how Frank Clark did it,” he said, referring to his predecessor. “I decided to do it differently.

“I will do my job and not go out and do somebody else’s job,” he added.

Sacha accused Sedita and former District Attorney Frank J. Clark III in 2009 of providing an election law pass to Pigeon because of his political influence. But Sedita insisted then, as he does now, that his office is not the proper vehicle for such investigations.

Sedita, whom Cuomo appointed to the Moreland Commission, questioned whether the panel can conduct the kind of probe Grant and Hogues requested.

“It doesn’t extend to every conceivable complaint, including every conceivable political complaint,” he said. “We’re supposed to look at the State Assembly and the State Senate. I don’t think the grant extends to countywide political races.”

The spokeswoman for the Moreland Commission said Cuomo’s instructions to the panel do include scrutiny of elections and campaign financing as very much a part of its mission, specifically outlined in Cuomo’s executive order.