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After judge’s guilty plea, prosecutors turn attention to Pigeon

For more than two decades, G. Steven Pigeon practically dared law enforcement to challenge his penchant for cultivating power and influence.

On Thursday, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman comes to Buffalo to do exactly that.

Following former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek’s guilty plea on Wednesday to two bribery-related charges, the Attorney General’s Office Thursday turns its attention to Pigeon.

[Judge Michalek says he took bribes as corruption probe moves to Pigeon]

The former Erie County Democratic chairman is slated to appear in court Thursday to answer more charges that constitute the flip side of the Michalek bribery case.

It all stems from a raid on the homes of Pigeon and two others on May 28, 2015 that resulted in seizure of personal computers and a trove of emails between Pigeon, Michalek and what insiders say are many others.

“These emails reflect an understanding between Judge Michalek and Pigeon in which Judge Michalek engaged in official conduct relating to his public office which advanced Pigeon’s interests, while soliciting, accepting, and agreeing to accept benefits from Pigeon,” according to the attorney general’s court papers.

[Seven allegations from the case against John Michalek]

That summarizes a complicated set of charges to which Pigeon will respond on Thursday, and to which Michalek on Wednesday agreed to resign his $193,000-a- year post and cooperate with prosecutors as part of a plea agreement. Though no assurances were made on Wednesday to the former jurist by State Supreme Court Donald F. Cerio Jr. of the Syracuse judicial district, Michalek indicated in court proceedings he will continue to cooperate.

In return, the Attorney General’s Office will take no position when Michalek returns before Cerio on Sept. 21 for sentencing. He could face up to seven years in state prison. He was released on his own recognizance after Wednesday’s court appearance.

[Michalek’s defense attorney has extensive experience as prosecutor]

Schneiderman, who investigated Pigeon’s activities based on original complaints about election law violations, emerged as the only prosecutor or official in New York State willing to take on the case. And according to a source familiar with the charge, more counts could be forthcoming. The source pointed out nothing in this week’s court proceedings yet addresses the concerns that led Schneiderman’s investigators, the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI in May of 2015 to raid the homes of former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant, former chief of staff to Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

For now, the state focuses its next steps on Pigeon, who has garnered complaints from political opponents and elections officials for many years over his controversial methods of raising money for independent political committees. Much more serious charges now face Michalek and Pigeon as a result of the original complaints, though those close to the case say more charges could still be pressed.

[Attorney General: Pigeon investigation ongoing, FBI also involved]

The Buffalo News previously reported that the seized emails may have outlined Michalek’s efforts to have Pigeon assist in obtaining a government job for a close relative. Wednesday’s indictment against Michalek confirms those initial reports – and more.

The charges answered by Michalek on Wednesday and Pigeon on Thursday occurred from about February 2012 to about April 20, 2015. They center around three specifics, with information about them stemming from the seized emails:

  • Pigeon’s alleged assistance in searching for employment for a close relative of Michalek.
  • Pigeon’s alleged assistance in searching for employment and appointed positions for a second close relative of Michalek.
  • Pigeon’s alleged assistance with recommendations for Michalek’s appointment to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court.

The emails also show that Pigeon provided Michalek with tickets to hockey games and a political fundraiser for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Buffalo on Nov. 19, 2013. In addition, the emails reveal Pigeon and Michalek often met for breakfast, lunch and coffee at various times between February, 2012 and early 2015.

Based on an email from Michalek to Pigeon on Sept. 4, 2012, it appears the first relative was hired to work on a national political campaign with the assistance of one of Pigeon’s contacts. In addition, the emails indicated Pigeon provided help for Michalek’s second relative in searching for employment. The charges also allege that between 2012 and 2015, Pigeon agreed to recommend Michalek for an appointment to the Appellate Division.

Regarding Pigeon’s efforts to obtain a job for the judge’s first relative, the attorney general’s indictment indicates Michalek emailed Pigeon on May 1, 2012: “If in the meantime ... you wish for me to consider Receiverships for others in your office ... Sure ... if it helps you … forward me some names … John.”

[No new cases going to judge who is under investigation]

Pigeon’s former law firm – Rochester-based Underberg & Kessler – is now represented by Buffalo attorney Terrence M. Connors in connection with the Pigeon-Michalek case.

While Pigeon was helping Michalek with these personal matters, Pigeon also was asking Michalek for help on lawsuits pending before the judge, the complaint said. The News first reported on June 11 that investigators were closely examining emails between Michalek and Pigeon regarding Palladian LLC, a West Seneca health care company. While Michalek was handling a case involving Palladian, he exchanged emails with Pigeon, a lawyer who was then associated with the law firm representing Palladian.

Michalek and Pigeon conversed about the Palladian case, although Pigeon was not named in court papers as the lawyer handling the case. Michalek also was using his official state courts email account to repeatedly implore Pigeon to use his influence to help a relative of the judge get a government job, according to four sources familiar with the investigation.

State and federal investigators were also trying to determine why the Palladian case, which had been handled for months by another state judge, was suddenly transferred to Michalek in November 2013.

The documents filed in court Wednesday indicate Pigeon was being paid by one of the companies involved in a case before Michalek, with one source familiar with the charges indicating Palladian as the firm.

During the time the pair was communicating, the complaint also says Michalek:

  • Kept Pigeon apprised of the status of the lawsuits.
  • Engaged in “ex parte” communications with Pigeon about them.
  • Sought Pigeon’s advice and input on various issues that arose when the cases came up on his calendar.
  • Provided Pigeon with advice as to how the cases should be handled.
  • Made favorable rulings in certain situations to protect the interests of Pigeon, his clients and his business associates.
  • Selected an attorney of Pigeon’s choosing to handle a receivership.

According to one of the seized emails, Michalek assigned an attorney recommended by Pigeon to work on a foreclosure, with more emails between Pigeon and Michalek illustrating the judge’s official misconduct and the benefits that Pigeon provided to the judge and his family members.

In March 2012, Michalek emailed Pigeon regarding a lawsuit pending before him, providing Pigeon with details concerning a motion filed by a non-party to the litigation seeking a protective order from a subpoena served by one of the parties.

In a written decision issued approximately two weeks later, Michalek denied the motion for a protective order, just as Pigeon had requested. Michalek then sent Pigeon an email with a copy of the decision attached and thanked Pigeon for “his efforts” on behalf of his first relative looking for a job, the complaint said.

Pigeon responded by email a short time later with an offer of additional assistance to the relative.

The complaint also indicated that on Dec. 10, 2012, Michalek emailed Pigeon concerning assistance in securing the Appellate Division appointment. Michalek wrote: “think there is a seat open in App Div … I applied … Normally I wouldn’t mention it to you … wonder if you could help.”

That same day, Pigeon replied: “I will start talking u up.”

The documents then indicate that on Jan. 8, 2013, Michalek wrote to Pigeon: “Unc Steve...How’d you do with the Gov??? ...” Later that day, Pigeon responded: “Bunch happening ... in albany now... Gov went well ... Talked u up ... Let’s have coffee soon.”

[Investigators zero in on email exchanges between Pigeon and Michalek]

The complaint draws a clear link between Pigeon and Michalek’s desire for a gubernatorial appointment to the appellate court.

“In some of the emails to Pigeon regarding Appellate Division appointment,” the complaint said, “Judge Michalek juxtaposed Pigeon’s continued help with a discussion of matters pending before him in which Pigeon had an interest.”

Other aspects of the complaint include that on Feb. 1, 2013, Pigeon offered Judge Michalek two tickets to box seats for a Buffalo Sabres game, which Michalek accepted. During this time period, the complaint said, Michalek and Pigeon exchanged emails concerning cases and matters pending before the judge as well as the benefits Pigeon was providing to Michalek and his two relatives. On March 21, 2013, Pigeon offered two tickets to box seats to Michalek for another Buffalo Sabres game, which were accepted.

The complaint charges that as late as Jan. 22, 2015, one day after Michalek emailed Pigeon to acknowledge that Pigeon was new co-counsel on a case pending before him, the judge emailed Pigeon and told him that he had asked his first relative to send Pigeon a copy of his second relative’s resume. Michalek said he thought the second relative would be great for any government task force or committee on education. The relative then forwarded a resume to Pigeon.

Lucian Chalfen, spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System, said Cerio was brought in to hear the cases against Michalek and Pigeon out of caution.

“The judge was brought in from the Third Department [Buffalo is in the Fourth Department] specifically so there would not be any appearance of a conflict,” he said.

Michalek stopped hearing cases in open court about two months ago, although he continued to hold conferences in chambers on some cases. No new cases were assigned to him after he became part of the investigation and his remaining cases were gradually being assigned to other judges.

[Judge Michalek, facing 'very serious' investigation, has unblemished record]

According to Administrative Justice Paula L. Feroleto, as of Wednesday there were 363 cases in Michalek’s court that now will be handled by six other justices.

The seat formerly held by Michalek now will be on the November ballot.

Michalek has listed his Town of Hamburg lakefront home for sale at $978,800. A “For Sale” sign is now posted in front of the property.

According to town records, Michalek purchased the home on Old Lake Shore Road, near the Lake Erie waterfront, for $340,000 in February 1996. The value of the 2.2-acre property is currently assessed by the town at $255,000 – far below what the judge paid for it more than 20 years ago.

According to the real estate website, the home was built in 1890. It has 6,248 square feet of living space, with seven bedrooms and three full or partial bathrooms.

News Staff Reporter Melinda Miller contributed to this report.



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