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Unanswered questions mark Progressive Caucus probe

Law enforcement raided the homes of three top figures in Buffalo politics – Steve Pigeon, Steve Casey and Chris Grant – a week and a half ago. Here are a few observations in the aftermath:

• Search warrants allowed the FBI, State Police and Attorney General’s Office to invade the homes of the three men and leave with their personal records and property. That’s serious stuff in a free society. But the warrants were signed by county and federal judges, who recognized enough legal reason to authorize such a drastic action.

That’s why several legal sources familiar with the case agree that the situation has escalated into something very real and very serious.

• Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman who may hold the record for most all-time mentions in the Politics Column, remains the central figure of the state-federal probe, according to several sources familiar with the situation. He never held any official position with the WNY Progressive Caucus upon which investigators are now focused, but was involved in enough of the fund’s financial transactions to prompt police officers to appear at his front door with a search warrant in hand.

Pigeon has always insisted that he used his own money in those transactions. He was a man of means with no family or lavish lifestyle to support, he said. And he practically dared authorities to arrive at his door as they did a few days ago.

“All these years, these half-truths and innuendoes only involve me donating or spending my own money or raising money,” he told The Buffalo News in February. “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.”

For the same story, Pigeon even unveiled tax returns to prove his financial ability to drop $100,000 on the WNY Political Caucus, as he did in 2013, or $50,000 to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as he did in 2012. He displayed a hefty income in the “mid-six figure” range to show that absent paying for college or buying yachts or fancy vacations – he had the wherewithal to drop big bucks on his passion for politics.

He did not unveil in February his agreement with the Internal Revenue Service – reached 11 months earlier – to repay unpaid federal taxes that now total about $245,000. That development, reported in The News last week, now clouds Pigeon’s entire “man of means” case.

• We’re shocked, shocked we say, to suggest that politics might play a role in all this. Pigeon, for example, has always maintained that Eric Schneiderman now investigates him because he favored a rival for attorney general back in 2010.

Pigeon’s attorneys have also expressed their disgust that cameras were summoned to their client’s home as the search warrants were executed, accusing Schneiderman of first-degree publicity hounding. And Pigeon defenders say Schneiderman – no friend of Cuomo – enjoys tweaking Cuomo over Pigeon, a longtime gubernatorial confidant.

Still, Schneiderman remains the only public official who has even looked at Pigeon’s fundraising efforts – the subject of several complaints over the years. No governor, no Moreland Commission, no previous attorney general, no U.S. attorney, no district attorney.

Nobody is yet charged in this affair. And lots of questions remain unanswered. But only Schneiderman is asking them.

• Quote of the Week dates to June 13, 2010, and comes from Peter Kiernan, who served as counsel to then-Gov. David Paterson. He and Paterson denied the request of former Assistant District Attorney Mark Sacha for a special prosecutor to probe allegations that two successive Erie County district attorneys provided a pass to Pigeon on election law violations because of his political influence.

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