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Pigeon investigation turns to political operative’s dealings with state judge

Investigators are looking into whether a State Supreme Court justice asked for G. Steven Pigeon’s help in securing a job for a relative, just when a close associate of the controversial political operative had a multimillion-dollar case pending in the judge’s courtroom.

Four sources close to the case told The Buffalo News on Wednesday that a continuing inquiry by the state Attorney General’s Office and federal prosecutors could lead to bribery-related charges against Pigeon and Justice John A. Michalek.

Pigeon’s political dealings have been the focus of a probe for almost a year. State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s investigators are working with State Police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and other agencies in the probe.

A computer that agents seized from Pigeon’s home last year yielded evidence of extensive discussions between him and Michalek, who repeatedly asked the former Erie County Democratic chairman to help a relative obtain a job in Washington, sources said.

“The investigators are alleging that it was a crime for them to even have these discussions while that case was pending, whether Steve Pigeon helped this person get a job, or not,” said one of the sources knowledgeable about the case.

Schneiderman’s office declined to comment Wednesday on what other sources told The News. Michalek did not return a phone call seeking comment, and Pigeon was unavailable to comment. Michalek’s attorney, Joel L. Daniels, and Pigeon’s attorneys – Paul J. Cambria Jr. and Dennis C. Vacco – said they could not discuss the case.

One source familiar with the case also confirmed that Lynn A. Clarke, Michalek’s confidential law clerk, was questioned by investigators but is not considered a target.

Two local lawyers who have known Michalek for decades rose to his defense Wednesday.

“I’ve known him since the 1970s, when he was a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office. Knowing this man for all those years, I would be shocked over any allegation of impropriety,” said West Seneca defense lawyer John J. Molloy. “I’ve never known him to do anything improper. I’d be greatly surprised if there was any substance to any of these reports.”

Similar comments came from Daniel J. Henry, who was Michalek’s partner in a Hamburg law office for several years in the 1990s.

“The judge was always concerned about the ethics of any situation,” Henry said. “He was careful to do the right thing.”

The probe of Pigeon, who until recently was considered one of New York’s top political power brokers and a confidant of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, culminates decades of controversy over his methods of raising and spending campaign money. Despite several complaints filed with election authorities over the years, however, he has never been charged.

Now, however, the case appears to have progressed beyond the original complaints of election law violations. The new phase stems from a series of investigations gripping the Western New York political community since 2014, when Schneiderman’s office began probing complaints centering on a Pigeon-connected political committee active in the 2013 Democratic primaries.

Several sources familiar with the investigation say new information about other questionable activities was gleaned from emails on computers seized in a raid on Pigeon’s waterfront condominium last May 28. While probing for evidence of illegal coordination of campaign activities, the sources said, investigators uncovered evidence of potentially more serious violations.

The case began when former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha and Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo, both filed complaints with the county Board of Elections over how the WNY Progressive Caucus raised $267,000 in 2013 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Party headquarters.

In March 2014, the county’s Democratic and Republican elections commissioners – Dennis E. Ward and Ralph M. Mohr – took the unusual and bipartisan step of turning over their findings to the state Board of Elections. The state board never would acknowledge its course of action, but it was known that it voted to refer the case to the attorney general.

From there, the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation began probing the case, along with Schneiderman’s investigators and in cooperation with the FBI.

The heart of the complaints against Pigeon’s fundraising organization concerns accusations that it spent a significant sum of money in the primaries in coordination with candidates he supported, which would be illegal in New York.

Pigeon has always denied any illegal coordination of campaign activity between his political organization and any other campaigns. But sources indicated at the time that the county elections commissioners presented evidence – some obtained by subpoena – of discrepancies between amounts of money that the Pigeon organization reported in campaign finance filings and what was actually spent on local political ads. They also were expected to make the case that illegal coordination had occurred.

At the time, sources said the local Board of Elections used its subpoena power to examine records not normally open to public scrutiny, while also matching campaign finance reports with expenditures on political advertising.

By late 2014, Schneiderman’s investigators began interviewing key players in the WNY Progressive Caucus. In early 2015, Pigeon left his longtime law firm – Rochester-based Underberg & Kessler – in what he called a mutual agreement.

Then, on May 28, 2015, Schneiderman’s team, along with State Police and FBI investigators, raided Pigeon’s home after obtaining search warrants. They left with his computers and cellphone, sources said at the time, while also removing computers from the homes of former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant, a political consultant and former aide to Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

The News reported at the time that Kristy L. Mazurek, treasurer of the WNY Progressive Caucus, was cooperating with authorities in the case.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com