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A political heavyweight under the microscope

The framed photographs in G. Steven Pigeon’s downtown Buffalo office tell much of his life story.

Portraits of him with Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Obama, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and just about anybody who matters in politics crowd his desk. Politics is where he has survived and prospered for more than 30 years, one of the state’s most powerful political figures.

But the photos don’t convey the breadth and depth of the self-proclaimed political animal’s most controversial enterprise – raising and spending money. Lots of money.

And now, as State Police investigators and FBI agents hover around a political committee closely linked to him, Pigeon and his fund- raising activities are being scrutinized under the most intense legal microscope of his long career.

The former Erie County Democratic chairman who says he remains Cuomo’s close adviser doesn’t seem to care. Political enemies have complained for years about his fundraising methods, Pigeon says, and they have never come close to proving election law violations. He has weathered the storm before, he adds, and seems to dare his many enemies – and anyone wearing a badge – to take him on now.

“All these years, these half-truths and innuendoes only involve me donating or spending my own money or raising money,” he said. “It’s ironic that I’m now grouped with people who have been enriching themselves.

“In today’s atmosphere of what’s happening in New York State,” he added, referring to various public officials recently charged with corruption, “I’m fine with the fact they’re finding out I followed the law.”

Not everyone agrees.

The Erie County Board of Elections last year voted on a bipartisan basis to probe possible election law violations of the WNY Progressive Caucus, an independent political committee allowed to raise and spend as much as it wants – provided there is no “coordination” with a particular candidate. The State Board of Elections concurred with another bipartisan and unanimous vote last March and referred the case to its own independent counsel.

Since then, several contributors to the fund say the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and FBI have questioned them at the behest of Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

Pigeon points out that donating to the fund constitutes his only official connection and that he bears no responsibility for its actions. But those who have been questioned indicate the attorney general is nevertheless more than curious about him.

Earliest political ties

Pigeon, 54, has inserted himself in campaigns ever since his childhood. Growing up in St. Louis, where his father was an air traffic controller, he often distributed campaign literature for his uncle, Missouri Senate Majority Leader Donald Gralick.

“There were always campaigns going on,” Pigeon said in a 1996 interview with The Buffalo News. “So even when I was 6, 7 or 8 years old, I was pulling a wagon with campaign literature.”

That’s been life for Steve Pigeon ever since. His passion, his outside activities, even the way he earns his living, all revolve around politics.

He won his only elective office during a brief stint as a county legislator in the 1980s, and reigned for seven tumultuous years as Erie County Democratic chairman before he was forced out in 2002.

In 2008, Pigeon may have gained his greatest statewide notoriety for helping engineer a coup that briefly ousted Democrats from the State Senate majority with the support of billionaire friend and benefactor B. Thomas Golisano.

New York City media reported in 2010 that he was involved in a probe of then-State Sen. Pedro Espada Jr., forcing him to hire a top Manhattan criminal defense attorney for another investigation that went nowhere.

Now an “of counsel” attorney for the Rochester firm of Underberg and Kessler, Pigeon lobbies in the halls of the State Capitol, where he once worked as Espada’s $150,000-per-year counsel. He serves as a business and political consultant with clients ranging from Golisano to Scott R. Congel and his efforts to build a mega-development of offices and retail on the old Seneca Mall site in West Seneca.

Pigeon acknowledges that he has attached himself to many wealthy and powerful figures over his career and that they have provided him opportunities. In addition to Golisano and Congel, they include former Buffalo Comptroller Anthony R. Nanula, developer Hormoz Mansouri and the Clintons.

But while Pigeon acknowledges he is now under scrutiny, he says no investigators have contacted him, nor has he hired a criminal defense attorney.

He previously has labeled Board of Elections complaints about him as a “political witch hunt” and insists he has spent only his own money and abided by rules governing an independent committee.

“I have not done anything wrong during my role in this, and I’ve had to endure years of this,” he said a few days ago. “There is no direct allegation of me coordinating with a candidate or offering any quid pro quo in any way. All you’ve got to do is look at my tax return.”

The political caucus

The new scrutiny centers around the Western New York Progressive Caucus, which raised $267,000 in 2013 for opponents of several candidates backed by Erie County Democratic Party headquarters in that year’s primary.

Records indicate that Pigeon, a bitter foe of current Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner and his candidates, gave the caucus $100,000.

The attorney general’s probe, according to those familiar with the complaint, involves questions from the State Police and FBI as recently as two weeks ago. It follows up on allegations presented to both the county and state elections boards that the committee’s 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 pursued the case with the state, to determine if the caucus’ fund and individual candidates illegally collaborated.

Previous complaints

Complaints aimed at Pigeon’s fundraising prowess represent nothing new. As far back as 2006, political opponents have accused him of money laundering, illegal coordination with candidates and other elections crimes.

And when former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha publicly claimed in 2009 that two successive district attorneys provided Pigeon a pass on election law violations because of his political influence, then-Gov. David A. Paterson’s counsel referred the case to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

“We concluded the existence of a pattern of violations of election law, some of which may involve money laundering or deliberate evasion of requirements of the election law,” Paterson counsel Peter J. Kiernan said at the time.

Nothing ever developed from that recommendation, nor from similar Erie County Board of Elections complaints lodged against him in 2008 for his connection to Responsible New York, a $5 million fund supporting Pigeon-backed candidates financed by Golisano.

Golisano connection

That year, Republican Senate candidate Michael H. Ranzenhofer claimed illegal coordination between Responsible New York and Joe Mesi, his Democratic opponent. Mesi’s primary opponent – Michele M. Iannello, wife of then-Erie County Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward – lodged a similar complaint with Cuomo, then the attorney general.

The same year, Erie County Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr submitted bank records he had subpoenaed to the Albany County district attorney regarding Pigeon’s Citizens for Fiscal Integrity fund, alleging that it concealed contribution origins and limits. He also launched a probe of another Pigeon-connected fund, Citizens for Accountable Government.

Those investigations went nowhere.

“Why do you think nothing happened?” Golisano asked a few days ago. “Maybe because there was nothing to it.”

A three-time Independence candidate for governor, Golisano is the founder of Paychex Inc. who now lives in Florida and who has steadfastly defended his friend and business associate over the years. Dating as far back as his first Independence run for governor in 1994, Golisano relied on Pigeon as a business and political consultant in a relationship that flourishes to this day. In fact, Pigeon persuaded him to buy the Buffalo Sabres in 2003.

“Allegations, verbal indictments, newspaper follow-ups and all kinds of nasty things” dogged him, Pigeon and Responsible New York during the fund’s existence, Golisano said.

At one point that year, Golisano stormed into the Erie County Board of Elections with TV cameras in tow to confront Mohr about the local complaints.

Now Golisano asks why someone in his financial and political position – as well as someone preaching fundamental reform in state government – would expose himself to potential illegalities.

“I have never been bashful about spending money to make New York State better,” he said. “Why would I, or why would I let Steve, even think about that?

“In politics, a lot of people and reporters say a lot things,” he added. “They should either show something or shut up.”

Sheriff’s campaign

Nonetheless, complaints continue.

One question Pigeon probably will be asked to answer is this: Why would one of his fund’s beneficiaries – Richard E. Dobson, an anti-headquarters sheriff candidate in 2013 – raise little money for a countywide campaign against two well-heeled opponents, while campaign records indicate the WNY Progressive Caucus spent $112,000 on his behalf?

Dobson sponsored no television ads for himself, and had only $7,500 on hand just before the November election.

“If he was hoping or expecting something would happen, that’s not against the law,” Pigeon said in dismissing any suggestion of coordination. “But he had no promise anything would happen.”

Democratic Chairman Zellner, meanwhile, said his organization finds itself constantly countering pots of money like the WNY Progressive Caucus.

“We pride ourselves on running a transparent organization that plays by the rules,” Zellner said last week, “and I feel Steve is opposed to that.

“Peter Kiernan said it: ‘a pattern of violating the election law,’ ” he added, referring to former Gov. Paterson’s chief counsel’s description of the Erie County situation. “You would think he would have learned, but apparently not.”

Pigeon dismisses the observations of the former governor’s lawyer, blaming them on his support at the time for Cuomo over Paterson in the 2010 election.

“It was a political cheap shot they took at me,” he said.

Opening tax returns

Pigeon opened his tax returns from the past several years to inspection at The News’ request in an effort to quell speculation that his contributions to the Progressive Caucus stemmed from anywhere but his own bank account. His records over the past three years indicate a mid-six-figure income, which he says proves his ability to spare $100,000 even for a fund supporting relatively low-level candidates.

He can afford big donations to a political cause the same way others could contribute to a church, he said, especially because he has no wife or children to support, takes few vacations, has no real hobbies and lives a non-extravagant lifestyle.

“It sounds odd, but when you look at how I live and how much I make, it really isn’t,” he said.

But why so much money to a relatively minor cause?

Pigeon has been warring with several Democratic chairmen dating to Joseph F. Crangle in the mid-1980s. A major goal in his life, he said, is to restore the stature and influence of the party under leaders like Peter J. Crotty, Vincent J. Sorrentino and, yes, Crangle.

“I do this because I received a raw deal at the end of my chairmanship and see a party that used to be a powerhouse in state politics now reduced to a shadow of its former self,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment statewide, and I hate to see that happen to a party with this tradition.”

A major aim of his political activities, he said, is to replace the current party leadership.

Pigeon’s answers

If and when the FBI or State Police knock on his door, Pigeon said, he has answers.

He acknowledges that several questions surround the fund’s campaign finance reports, such as his claim that he never received a consultant’s payment of $25,000 after contributing $100,000.

But he blames “clerical errors” and “sloppy” record keeping on the many questions posed about the fund.

“People make mistakes, but it wasn’t me,” he said. “And the reports were amended. There was nothing criminal.”

Kristy L. Mazurek, a Pigeon associate who served as WNY Progressive Caucus treasurer, also said she has not been questioned by any law enforcement officer, though she has an attorney on retainer ready to respond to any inquiries. She also acknowledges clerical errors, denies any criminal wrongdoing, and blames political enemies for the situation.

“I don’t know what their perception of coordination is,” she said. “It’s what you might perceive versus what is actually fact.”

Pigeon, who expects to have a role in Hillary Clinton’s anticipated presidential campaign in 2016, remains troubled by the cloud the ongoing probe has left hanging over his head. The controversy and media attention concern his clients, he acknowledged, while he questions whether the now tight-lipped investigators will say anything at the end of a probe he predicts will eventually fizzle.

“They won’t file charges, but they won’t call a press conference to say this person is clean,” he said.

But he leaves no question about his confidence in overcoming the latest challenge, which he continues to blame on enemies and chalks up as a consequence of the way he conducts his politics.

Is it all worth it?

“Probably not,” he said. “It’s probably not worth taking these yearly hits. But I will always be a player, one way or another.”