A frequent critic of local election law enforcement says the latest federal and media scrutiny of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Moreland Commission underscores Erie County’s lack of an independent prosecutor to root out public corruption.
As a result, Mark A. Sacha has written U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to request that his federal investigation of the Moreland Commission’s unresolved complaints extend to several cases in Western New York.
“Preet Bharara is the first person to take this seriously,” said Sacha, a former assistant district attorney for Erie County. “The problem is everyone has a conflict of interest and now it’s come home to roost.”
Sacha last year told the Moreland Commission about a fundraising committee with ties to political operative G. Steven Pigeon – a Cuomo adviser and $50,000 contributor – and charged that conflicts of interest entwining local prosecutors prevent any significant investigation of political corruption.
In addition, two Democratic legislators – Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues – wrote to the Moreland Commission and also complained about the Pigeon fundraising committee activities, which had raised more than $260,0000 for political campaigns, but never received an acknowledgement from the commission.
Sacha pointed to his own claims of political interference in election law prosecution by District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, as well as the failure of the Moreland Commission (of which Sedita is a member) to acknowledge the complaints he filed,
He also said William J. Hochul – the U.S. attorney in Buffalo – is “hopelessly conflicted” on any matters before the Moreland Commission because he is married to Cuomo’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Kathleen C. Hochul.
Sacha’s letter to Bharara stems from last month’s revelations in the New York Times outlining a pattern of political interference in Moreland Commission investigations, he said, and Bharara’s own investigation of those claims.
Because the Moreland Commission ignored his complaints and complaints from the two Erie County legislators about the Pigeon-connected committee, Sacha said he is now going to Bharara in Manhattan.
“What else can a person do than go to Bharara when Pigeon and Cuomo have insulated themselves in Western New York, when Sedita is on the Moreland Commission, and Hochul’s wife is on the ticket?” Sacha said. “What prosecutor can I go to?”
In his letter to Bharara, Sacha labels Sedita “a close political and personal friend of Pigeon.”
“As a result,” his letter said, “at this time Mr. Pigeon is almost above the law.”
Sedita and Hochul declined to comment, and Cuomo said he will not address any more questions on the matter.
Sacha was the last New Yorker to testify before the Moreland Commission on Sept. 24, when he traveled to Albany to seek a probe into the Pigeon committee and other local matters. He told the panel that Sedita fired him in 2009 after he claimed the district attorney and predecessor Frank J. Clark III gave a pass to Pigeon over alleged violations of election law.
Sacha requested then-Gov. David A. Paterson to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate his claims. Paterson rejected the request in 2010 but referred Sacha’s complaints to Bharara who was probing Pigeon associates at the time. Paterson said then that he would defer to Sedita’s prosecutorial discretion.
But Paterson’s counsel – Peter J. Kiernan – said Sacha’s complaints had uncovered “a pattern of violations of election law, some of which may involve money laundering or deliberate evasion of requirements of the election law.” While investigators conducted a few local interviews about Sacha’s case, Bharara never pursued it.
Sacha’s new letter to Bharara also asks for an explanation why the complaints that Paterson referred to his office were never fully investigated.
In 2010, GOP gubernatorial hopeful Rick A. Lazio criticized then-Attorney General Cuomo for not pursuing what Sacha had reported to Paterson. Lazio accused Cuomo of not acting on the conclusion of Paterson’s counsel because of Pigeon’s influence. Cuomo, at the time, cited a lack of jurisdiction in the matter.
Sacha said he went to Albany on Sept. 24 to testify before the commission because he doubted it would ever hold a hearing in Buffalo. The commission already had postponed its Buffalo hearing scheduled for Sept. 18, promising to reschedule but never did. He said he believes his Albany testimony prompted the decision to cancel hearings in Buffalo because of the political conflicts he had outlined.
“They failed to come to Buffalo because my complaint involved the State Police, and someone who might be the governor’s closest adviser in Western New York,” Sacha said, referring to Pigeon. “And it would be a political embarrassment to the governor because my complaints involved to some degree Frank Sedita.
“It was apparent to the previous governor,” he said of Paterson’s referral of his complaints to Bharara, “but not to this commission.”
Sacha renewed his campaign against a local legal establishment he said is unwilling to prosecute election law violations because of so many political ties. He had submitted a complaint about the Pigeon-allied committee – WNY Progressive Democrats – to the commission, claiming irregularities in financial reporting and illegal coordination with candidates after it raised $267,000 for campaigns aimed against endorsed Democratic candidates.
Democratic Legislators Grant and Hogues also complained about Pigeon’s committee but never received an acknowledgement from the commission.
The Buffalo News reported last year that commission members had ties to Pigeon, pointing out his close association with Cuomo, past association with commission Co-chairwoman Kathleen Rice when the Nassau County district attorney ran for attorney general in 2010, and his charge that Sedita, a member of the commission, had failed to prosecute Pigeon for alleged election law violations because of the former Erie County Democratic chairman’s political influence.
Sacha, Grant and Hogues also filed complaints about the commission with the Erie County Board of elections, which brought the case on a bipartisan basis to the state Board of Elections in Albany. The state board then launched its own investigation with plans for the State Police to conduct the probe. The News has since reported that the board has issued several local subpoenas in connection with the case.
Grant said late last week she is concentrating on her run for the State Senate and would offer no comment other than she is content to allow the Board of Elections to conduct its investigation. In the past, however, Grant was critical of the Moreland Commission for failing to even acknowledge her complaint.
Sacha told The News that he seeks a simultaneous federal probe of his charges of coordination among campaigns because the Board of Elections case continues to drag on. After six years of unsuccessfully seeking investigation of election law violations in Erie County other than the current Board of Elections probe, he decided to renew his contact with Bharara.