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Pigeon’s lawyers denied access to Board of Elections documents

Lawyers for political operative G. Steven Pigeon appealed Friday to the Erie County Board of Elections for access to the papers it compiled in the early stage of a now multilayered law enforcement investigation into Pigeon’s activities and electioneering in the region.

But for a second time, Pigeon’s lawyers were denied in their Freedom of Information Law request for documents from a government agency.

Lawyers from the firm Lippes, Mathias, Wexler, Friedman are now free to go to court. But they chose not to answer reporters’ questions as to whether they would do so as they left the Elections Board’s headquarters on Eagle Street.

Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr, a Republican, and Leonard R. Lenihan, a Democrat, told lawyer Eric M. Soehnlein that he would not receive the records because their release could interfere with the ongoing law-enforcement investigation now being conducted by State Police, the Attorney General’s Office and the FBI. Those agencies became involved after the Erie County Elections Board in 2014 found unreported expenses and contributions to an independent political committee Pigeon controlled, the WNY Progressive Caucus, and alerted the State Elections Board.

The Freedom of Information Law allows agencies to withhold records that are compiled for law enforcement purposes and which “if disclosed would interfere with law enforcement investigations ...’’ An official with the Attorney General’s Office told an Erie County attorney that releasing the documents would interfere with the probe, Mohr said.

Pigeon’s legal team first asked for the county’s records in March, long before agents searched Pigeon’s waterfront condominium May 28, and simultaneously searched the homes of his associate Steven M. Casey, Buffalo’s former deputy mayor, and Christopher M. Grant, a Republican strategist who has teamed with Pigeon and Casey on various initiatives.

With Erie County’s records, Pigeon’s lawyers would have learned more about certain investigative findings and perhaps obtained a glimpse into where the probe might go.

The elections commissioners denied the first request. The lawyers filed an appeal, as the FOI Law allows, and on Friday Soehnlein asked the commissioners for the legally allowed explanation as to why releasing the various types of documents to public view would hinder the investigation. Mohr did so, and Soehnlein offered some counter arguments. Mohr and Lenihan then said they would deliberate privately.

Exactly five minutes later they emerged from a side room to announce the appeal would be denied.