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Federal prosecutor Hochul recuses himself from probe involving Pigeon and Grant

U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. has recused himself from an investigation into the political activities of G. Steven Pigeon, sources close to the probe told The Buffalo News on Friday.

Because of the potential political ramifications of the probe – including the fact that Pigeon has served as a top political adviser to his wife’s boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – Hochul removed himself from the case weeks ago and named his top assistant – James P. Kennedy – to oversee the investigation and coordinate with the state Attorney General’s Office, the sources said.

The U.S. Justice Department requires a prosecutor to recuse himself or herself from a case when “a conflict of interest exists or there is an appearance of a conflict of interest or loss of impartiality.”

The investigation – which became public knowledge Thursday with the execution of three search warrants – is focused on the political activities of Pigeon, former Democratic Party chairman for Erie County; Steven M. Casey, a Democrat and former deputy mayor of Buffalo; and Christopher M. Grant, a Republican who serves as chief of staff for Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

While Hochul’s office declined to comment on the reports of his recusal, there is a clear thicket of potential conflicts created by his wife’s career in political office:

• Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul works for and with Cuomo, and Pigeon for years has served as a top political adviser to the governor. Pigeon donated $54,000 to Cuomo’s successful re-election campaign last year.

• Grant was the campaign chairman for the candidates who opposed Kathleen Hochul in two hard-fought Congressional campaigns. In 2011, Kathleen Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin in a race for Congress. In 2012, Collins defeated Hochul in a run for the same seat. Grant ran both campaigns against Hochul.

• Kathleen Hochul has long been associated with a faction of the Erie County Democratic Party that has had a heated rivalry with Pigeon. Former county Democratic Party chairman Leonard Lenihan – a longtime rival of Pigeon’s – lobbied hard for Kathleen Hochul’s appointment to her first major political office, as county clerk, in 2007. That appointment set the stage for her later rise to congresswoman and lieutenant governor.

• Government records show that Pigeon gave a small campaign donation to Kathleen Hochul – $250 – in 2011.

Richard F. Griffin, an attorney at Buffalo’s federal court who has practiced for 58 years, said Hochul took the right course of action by recusing himself from the case.

“I think it would be a violation of his trust and his high office if he did not recuse,” Griffin said. “The fundamental principle, especially for someone who has a responsibility to enforce the law, is to avoid even the appearance of a possible conflict of interest.”

Griffin, who has been following the case but has no involvement it, said it is rare, but not unheard of, for a federal prosecutor to recuse himself from involvement with an investigation.

The News attempted Friday to contact Hochul and Kennedy about the situation, but was told by Barbara Burns, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney, that “we don’t confirm or deny investigations.”

Armed with court-ordered search warrants, investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office, State Police and the FBI conducted searches for documents and computers Thursday at the homes of Pigeon, Grant and Casey.

The searches were part of an investigation into potential election law violations, possible falsification of records, possible fraud and possible kickbacks, law enforcement officials said.

One entity that is under investigation, authorities said, is the WNY Progressive Caucus, a political action committee Pigeon started that raised $267,000 in 2013. Grant and Casey did printing work for the caucus, sources said.

At least five of Buffalo’s top defense attorneys have lined up to represent potential subjects of the investigation.

Pigeon is now represented by Dennis C. Vacco, former Republican state attorney general and former U.S. attorney for Western New York, and Paul J. Cambria, one of the region’s top defense lawyers for decades.

“Frankly, I don’t see any violations of the law,” said Cambria, who said he has been studying the operations of Pigeon’s PAC. “There’s nothing to hide.”

Pigeon is “holding up as well as can be expected,” Cambria added Friday. “No one is pleased when they are the subject of an investigation. He’s convinced he has done nothing wrong.”

Thomas J. Eoannou, a top trial lawyer, represents Grant.

“He cooperated completely to the agents who came to his door on Thursday, and I am sure the results of the investigation will show that he has done nothing wrong,” Eoannou said.

Rodney O. Personius, a former federal prosecutor who has handled many major white-collar defendants in Western New York, represents Casey.

“Having someone conduct a search warrant on your property is a big difference from someone having a criminal charge filed against them,” Personius said. “Obtaining a search warrant is just a fancy way of getting evidence for law enforcement. No charges have been filed against anyone in this case.”

Joel L. Daniels, widely considered the dean of Buffalo’s defense attorneys, represents Kristi Mazurek, a political activist close to Pigeon who serves as treasurer of the WNY Progressive Caucus. Daniels said that, to his knowledge, the caucus “currently has minimal money, or no money in it, and is dormant.”

Staff reporter Matthew Spina contributed to this story. email: