When Mark A. Sacha publicly complained in 2009 that local prosecutors ignored the alleged election law violations of G. Steven Pigeon, a well-connected political operative, he was fired as an assistant district attorney.
When County Legislators Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues four years later complained to a state ethics panel about Pigeon and a political campaign fund linked to him, they never even received a reply from the now-defunct Moreland Commission on Public Integrity.
And while nobody has ever accused U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. of ignoring public corruption and a process exists to handle potential conflicts, anyone contemplating complaints about the state’s Democratic establishment is aware of an elephant in the room: he is married to Kathleen C. Hochul, New York’s Democratic lieutenant governor.
Now, following years of frustration in some local quarters over a “look the other way” approach to election law violations, the state attorney general appears to be paying attention.
As recently as last week, state police investigators requested records and interviewed several local political figures at the behest of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, who is probing the Pigeon-connected campaign fund, WNY Progressive Caucus.
Sources add that the FBI also is working with the State Police on the matter, and it is known that U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara has the complaints and files left over from the now-defunct state Moreland Commission.
“It’s very encouraging,” Grant said of a recent interview she had with state investigators. “I was interviewed for a couple of hours and am now hopeful someone is finally paying attention. For the first time in over a year, we’re just not being ignored.”
Pigeon and Kristy L. Mazurek, a close associate who was treasurer of the fund, have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Pigeon last week continued to call complaints about the fund a “frivolous, political witch hunt.”
He said he used his own money to donate to the fund, that the fund was never coordinated with candidates, and that he acted only as a donor and not as an administrator responsible for reporting. He added that he has not been contacted by any investigators.
Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, meanwhile, dismissed Sacha’s accusations as resulting from a personal grudge.
“It is no secret that Mr. Sacha has a deep, personal animosity toward me,” Sedita said. “In his Moreland Commission testimony, he accused me and most elected district attorneys in New York of being corrupt. That should tell you something about his credibility.”
But Grant, Sacha, political consultant Michael A. Darby, Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr and others said they discussed Pigeon’s influence in recent months with the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation acting on behalf of the attorney general. They were quizzed about the now-inactive political fund linked to Pigeon.
The WNY Progressive Caucus raised $267,000 in 2013 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic headquarters in that year’s primary. Records indicate that Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman, gave more than $100,000 to the fund.
The attorney general’s probe, according to local elections officials interviewed for this story, centers around allegations that the WNY Progressive Caucus’ campaign finance reports (for which Pigeon was not responsible) were marked by discrepancies between what was submitted to the elections board and what was actually paid to local television stations for political ads.
The state probe also aims, according to local board of elections officials who filed a complaint to the state, to determine if the independent fund and individual candidates collaborated, which would be illegal.
Sacha, who prosecuted corruption cases for 22 years until his 2009 complaints against Sedita got him fired, reiterated the testimony he delivered in 2013 as the Moreland Commission’s last witness before it was disbanded in 2014 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“The issue of conflict of interest is the reason why nothing gets done,” Sacha said. “In our area, it is especially an issue because of the connection of Pigeon to Cuomo and Sedita.”
The district attorney responded by pointing to the 2014 conviction of Joseph A. Mascia, who admitted misdemeanor charges of failing to file campaign finance reports after he ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Assembly.
Ryan criticizes Sedita
But Sacha is not the district attorney’s only critic.
Following Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s recent arrest, Democratic Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan of Buffalo is seeking reforms to guard against similar corruption. As part of those efforts, he now is emphasizing the need for stricter enforcement of the election laws that he says Sedita and other district attorneys in New York fail to enforce.
He criticized Sedita for insisting that his office lacks time and personnel to root out and prosecute election law violations, while Bharara has committed to scrutinizing public officials like Silver.
“We can continue to have more disclosure, but without enforcement, it’s meaningless,” Ryan said. “(Bharara) has made that choice himself and that choice is available to all DAs in New York State and to the attorney general.
“No DA investigates this because they are all backed by these bad actors,” he added.
The Buffalo News during the existence of the Moreland Commission reported several potential political conflicts involving its members.
Sedita, for example, sat on the panel at the time Sacha registered his complaint against the Pigeon-connected fund. But Pigeon supported Sedita in his 2008 campaign for district attorney, directly contributed money to his campaign and helped channel additional funds to Sedita’s campaign chest.
Pigeon also helped Sedita obtain the often-crucial Conservative endorsement during the prosecutor’s first district attorney campaign in 2008, which Sedita used to leverage Democratic backing despite then-Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan’s early support for another candidate.
In addition, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen M. Rice was a co-chairwoman of the Moreland Commission following an earlier political relationship with Pigeon. He escorted Rice to Florida in 2010 to meet with Independence Party founder B. Thomas Golisano (a close Pigeon associate) when she was seeking the minor party’s backing for attorney general.
In addition, Pigeon is a major contributor and close political adviser to Cuomo, and he has employed similar fundraising techniques throughout his long career and consistently defended their legality.
Campaign finance records show Pigeon’s consulting firm was paid $25,000 by the WNY Progressive Caucus for services, though he says he never received that money.
Another prominent contributor was Democratic State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo, who gave $85,000 of his campaign funds to the WNY Progressive Caucus that worked against Grant’s County Legislature candidacy in 2013. She barely lost to Kennedy in the 2012 Democratic primary for the Senate, and at the time was gearing up to challenge him again in 2014.
Other contributors to Pigeon’s caucus include AJ Wholesale, a Seneca tobacco dealer on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, which gave $30,000.
State elections investigation
The Erie County Board of Elections launched a probe of the WNY Political Caucus in 2013 with the approval of its Democratic and Republican commissioners. After they referred the matter to the state Board of Elections, it voted on a bipartisan basis last March to launch its own probe.
A board spokesman said the case was then transferred to Risa Sugarman, the chief enforcement counsel for the state Board of Elections who was appointed last year by Cuomo. But Sugarman refused to comment and would not acknowledge receipt of the case. The Board of Elections, meanwhile, did not return a call seeking details, leaving any information about the original board investigation relegated to an Albany black hole.
Schneiderman’s office also declined to discuss an ongoing investigation, although Grant and other local political figures questioned recently by state police investigators said they understood the probe was launched by the attorney general.
Mohr, the GOP elections commissioner in Erie County, said bank records and other documents subpoenaed earlier by the local board were turned over to the attorney general by Dennis E. Ward, the former Erie County Democratic elections commissioner elected to State Supreme Court in November.
Sacha, who also filed a complaint with the local board, wrote to Schneiderman to inquire about the status of the situation. He said his letter prompted a call from state police investigators.
“We gathered a lot of information,” Mohr said. “And we discussed with the State Police whether the attorney general would prosecute if we gathered the information. The State Police did not want to follow on this if nobody would prosecute.”
Mohr said the Erie County Attorney’s Office late last year initiated judicial proceedings to enforce the board’s subpoenas. A spokesman for the county attorney said subpoenas were issued to two local vendors appearing in the WNY Progressive Caucus’ campaign finance report – Gallagher Printing and Marketing Tech.
Bharara, who brought corruption charges against Silver more than a week ago, assumed the files of Moreland Commission investigators after Cuomo ended the panel.
Bharara also is investigating the campaign finances of former State Sen. George D. Maziarz, a Niagara County political powerhouse. Maziarz acknowledged last year a federal investigation of how he handled his campaign funds but said it did not influence his decision not to seek re-election. He said at that time that he had had health problems and was tired after two decades or more in political office.
The News reported last month that Maziarz’s still-active campaign account has now paid $72,400 to top Buffalo law firms in the face of the federal investigation.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Hochul sought to dispel doubts about any conflict he might encounter as husband of the lieutenant governor.
“All (U.S. attorney) offices have in place a system to refer any potential investigation, including public corruption, to other offices or agencies as appropriate, and no wrongdoer escapes justice because he or she may be related to a prosecutor or law enforcement officer,” he said. “Over the last five years, this office has prosecuted numerous cases involving public corruption, including elected officials, employees of every level of government, law enforcement officers and others.”