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Critics see primary role by Pigeon in West Seneca

Even as a joint state-federal investigation focuses on G. Steven Pigeon’s campaign finance activities, the political operative’s familiar footprints appear in this month’s efforts to defeat two West Seneca candidates who have been asking tough questions about the proposed Seneca Place megaproject.

It all makes sense to Councilman Eugene P. Hart Jr., who prevailed by a handful of votes in the Democratic primary election Sept. 10 despite a flurry of mailings against him. Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan did not fare as well, losing her primary contest following mailings she said contributed to her defeat.

The pair say that while Pigeon may no longer officially lobby for S&R Co. of West Seneca LLC and its $750 million proposal at the former Seneca Mall, he remains very much involved. They insist that he is playing a part in developer Scott R. Congel’s plans and has even attended meetings this year on the project, despite the expiration of his S&R lobbying contract nine months ago.

That’s why Hart and Meegan now allege that Pigeon solicited his usual sources for the last-minute dollars that were poured into the primary and that it was in his own interest to do so.

“I really don’t believe he is not involved any longer,” Meegan said, adding that she has met with Pigeon about the project at least twice since January. “We have not been told by any party on that side that Steve is no longer part of the team.”

Hart agrees, and blames Pigeon for raising and spending the money aimed at candidates posing impediments to the project.

“You have to ask yourself why somebody would put that kind of money in a town race,” Hart said. “There’s no other way that money would come this way unless Steve directed it here.”

Nobody suggests illegalities in the way that $25,000 was transferred just before the primary – from a Seneca Nation businessman to Pigeon’s political allies in Cheektowaga – and spent on mailings against Hart. And Pigeon has not lobbied for Congel’s company since his $116,000 contract expired at the end of 2014, according to his lawyer, former state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco.

“Mr. Pigeon stands by his position that he no longer represents the Congel project,” Vacco said. “That position is supported by Congel employees who verify he is not engaged. On the other hand, he has been involved in West Seneca politics since the 1970s and is not going to stop.”

But Hart contends that while Pigeon, a former Erie County Democratic chairman, may no longer officially represent S&R, he is still involved in the project.

“My personal feeling is that just gives him cover,” Hart said of the lobbying contract’s expiration. “It gives him deniability.”

Meegan, who will compete on minor party lines in the November general election, said the Congel team informed her only after the state-federal probe began last spring that Pigeon’s lobbying contract had expired at the end of 2014, but that he remained as an attorney working “of counsel” on the project.

“He has still played an active role,” she said.

Not so, said Congel spokesman Arnie Rothschild. He emphasized this week that while Pigeon may be promoting a project he thinks is good for his hometown of West Seneca, he has no official connection. He said that “conversations around the kitchen table” may have occurred with Meegan about the project, but that any Pigeon involvement was informal.

“Could the project come up in the course of a conversation? Yes,” Rothschild said. “But he is no longer involved.”

He also said he is aware of only one meeting involving Pigeon and the project, which occurred Jan. 29 and consisted of Pigeon “handing off” the project to others. Meegan and Hart both say they attended one other meeting March 16 at which Pigeon was present in an official capacity.

The roundabout funding pattern of the West Seneca race would not prove new to Pigeon. State Police, the FBI and agents of state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman raided Pigeon’s home with search warrants May 28 investigating his previous political fundraising. Now, Meegan says, Pigeon is reverting to his usual methods.

“I am extremely disappointed that he would go to such great lengths to hurt good people when he is under investigation for doing the same thing,” Meegan said. “I would think he would just stay out of West Seneca politics when he has been asked to do so time and time again.”

Hart alleges that the mailings reflect an effort to shape a Town Board friendly to the Congel plan that seeks to transform the vacant Seneca Mall property into retail, hotels, apartments, offices and entertainment venues. Significantly, the firm also seeks a $119 million bonding commitment from the town for a community center and 6,000-space parking garage.

Meegan contends that Pigeon even told her that he arranged for his associates to steer money to the Progressive Democrats of Western New York, a political committee controlled by longtime ally Frank C. Max Jr., a former Cheektowaga Democratic chairman. Ultimately, Hart said, the money funded mailings.

“I would hate to believe that’s the case, but it does have that appearance,” Meegan said of Pigeon’s involvement with the mailings and with Congel. “Who would spend that kind of money to smear someone with lies at the last moment?”

And because the anti-Hart mailings frequently mentioned the councilman’s involvement in hiring for a town post a cousin named Walsh – Meegan’s well-known maiden name – Hart and Meegan say the mailings targeted the supervisor, too.

Hart acknowledged that while Meegan was not specifically targeted by the mailings, the effort aimed at him spilled into the supervisor’s race. That’s because he and Meegan are both questioning the Congel project, Hart said.

“Can I prove that $20,000 or $30,000 came out of the Congel project? No,” Hart said of he mailings. “But I can certainly infer this is what it’s all about, because I have been most vocal on this.

“They came out against me on this,” he added. “Unfortunately, they got Sheila.”

Max and his Progressive Democrats of Western New York (not to be confused with the Pigeon-connected WNY Progressive Caucus now under investigation) acknowledge sending the mailings that targeted Hart in the last days of the primary campaign. Max said that although his group has never before supported candidates outside Cheektowaga, it is now “expanding” it activities into other towns and sponsored the mailings in the final days of this month’s primary in West Seneca.

“We helped our allies and we’re going to continue to do that from here on in,” Max said, emphasizing that his group did not coordinate its activities with any candidate.

Records indicate that the $25,000 was funneled through the Max group Sept. 9 in a donation from Pierce National Enterprises of the Seneca Indian Territory in Irving. Max acknowledged that the company is linked to businessman Aaron J. Pierce, who also has long ties to Pigeon. Max’s group then sponsored the fliers.

Pierce’s A&J Wholesale Co. donation of $30,000 ranked as the third-largest to the Pigeon-connected WNY Progressive Caucus in 2013. The fund raised $267,000 for the campaigns of anti-Democratic Headquarters candidates backed by Pigeon that year, and is now the main focus of the state and federal investigation.

Records also show that Max’s Progressive Democrats of Western New York gave $4,000 to the Pigeon-connected WNY Progressive Caucus in 2013.

Max contends that Pigeon was not involved in the latest transaction, but was “aware” that he would approach Pierce for the donation.

“They’ve got ties with Steve, but they also have ties with me, obviously,” Max said of the Pierce company.

“He’s aware of it because I said I would solicit his guy,” he added in reference to Pigeon and Pierce. “We didn’t ask Congel for anything because we didn’t want a conflict of interest. I’ve never had a conversation with Steve on who he does business with. That’s one reason I said to Steve I would rather do this through our club.”

But when asked if he perceived a conflict for any involvement by Pigeon, Max said that was “Steve’s business.”

“There’s always going to be conflict,” he said.

Vacco also emphasized that Pigeon had “no direct involvement in the solicitation of funds from Mr. Pierce.”

Last year, Pierce took a corporate guilty plea to felony crimes in Missouri. He admitted that one of his companies illegally bought and sold contraband cigarettes, and his firm agreed to pay $1 million in fines, forfeitures and judgments.

Meegan said she was surprised to be indirectly targeted by the latest Pigeon political funding activity, especially since she is the daughter of former West Seneca Councilman Christopher P. Walsh – whom Pigeon has often referred to as his “second father.”

She also noted that West Seneca Democrats have recently aligned with Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, whom Pigeon considers a bitter political foe. Now she faces potential defeat because of mailings she labels unfair and stemming from a Cheektowaga group meddling in West Seneca politics.

Hart, meanwhile, said Pigeon’s efforts in the primary present “at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.” He added that he, Meegan and fellow Councilman William P. Hanley Jr. have all raised serious questions about the town’s ability to afford the $119 million in debt needed for the project.

He and Meegan have adopted a “very cautious” approach to the Congel effort because he said it amounts to a “high-risk real estate project.”

“I just don’t know if the Town of West Seneca can support such a project,” he said, adding that he and the entire Town Board remain open to the idea because of its potential benefits.

“They try to change boards; that’s what they do to get people favorable to their point of view,” Hart said of some developers. “That’s what this election was all about.”

Vacco noted the “irony” in Meegan’s accusations because he said Pigeon “supported” his old family friend in the election.

“Oftentimes in defeat, an unsuccessful candidate looks for reasons why that occurred,” Vacco said. “Sometimes they are real; sometimes imagined.”