For the first time in 21 years, no one rose to their feet when John A. Michalek walked into a courtroom on Wednesday.
For the first time since he began serving as a State Supreme Court judge in 1995, Michalek’s role in the courtroom was as an admitted criminal, one who pleaded guilty to felony crimes of bribe-receiving and offering a false instrument for filing in a court case. Both of the crimes involved Michalek’s dealings with longtime political power broker G. Steven Pigeon.
Looking thin, pale, tired, dejected and broken, the 65-year-old Michalek told the court that he was resigning from his $193,000-a-year judgeship, and agreeing to cooperate as a witness in the ongoing probe into Pigeon’s political activities. He faces a possible prison term of up to seven years when he is sentenced on Sept. 21.
As a convicted felon, the former judge also will lose his right to practice as an attorney. It’s a painful fall from grace for a man who was selected as the Outstanding Jurist in 2005 by the Erie County Bar Association’s Matrimonial and Family Law Committee. And many of the people who knew and worked with Michalek over the years seem genuinely surprised.
“Would I ever have expected Judge Michalek to get into any kind of trouble? Absolutely not,” said former Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark, who worked with Michalek from 1977 to 1985. “John was a very conservative, very reserved, very careful guy … a public servant. I was extremely surprised to hear he was in any kind of trouble. It just doesn’t add up.”
Until now, many people in legal circles would say Michalek lived a charmed life. A State Supreme Court judgeship is one of the most coveted jobs for any lawyer in New York State. It is a 14-year position that, in addition to a salary far beyond that made by most lawyers, provides a generous pension and other benefits.
Michalek never had to run in a contested election for his judgeship. A registered Democrat, he was selected by political party leaders to be “cross-endorsed” by both Democrats and Republicans in 1994 and again in 2008.
Every judge has his or her critics, but legal experts say most of the lawyers who practiced in front of Michalek considered him to be fair, honest and hardworking.
“I’ve practiced in front of him a number of times over a period of 20 years. Even when he’s ruled against me, I’ve never seen a decision from him that seemed to be tainted by politics or anything else,” said Amherst lawyer Steven M. Cohen.
It is sad, said Cohen and several other Buffalo attorneys, that Michalek has become the second brother in his family to wind up in serious trouble with the law.
Not like his brother
His older brother, the late James J. Michalek, was a flashy guy – an attorney and investment scam artist who lived in an extravagant home in Orchard Park, wore a full-length fur coat, drove an expensive sports car and went to prison in the 1990s for cheating banks out of millions of dollars and dozens of senior citizens out of their retirement savings.
To most people in Buffalo’s legal community, John Michalek seemed to be cut from a much different cloth. He earned a reputation as an earnest, quietly efficient attorney who served as a top prosecutor in the Erie County district attorney’s office before political party leaders chose him to become a State Supreme Court judge in 1994. He began serving in 1995.
“John was not only embarrassed by the actions of his brother, he felt terrible about it,” said a close family friend of Michalek. “Some of Jim’s victims were old family friends, old neighbors and retired steelworkers … John wanted people to know that he wasn’t like that.”
“John and his brother Jim were such different personalities. Jim was flamboyant, a riverboat gambler,” Clark said. “John seemed to be a much different guy.”
The former judge grew up in a well respected family in Lackawanna. His late father, Leo Sr., was a physician. His late mother, Louise, was a nurse widely involved in charity and volunteer activities. The couple raised five children – three lawyers, a physician and a psychiatrist.
“I’ve known this family going back to the 1950s, and they were one of the most respected families in Lackawanna,” said former Erie County DA Edward C. Cosgrove, still practicing law at age 81. “They were good, solid people, deeply religious, hardworking, very good students.”
John Michalek graduated from St. Francis High School, Canisius College and the University at Albany Law School before he was hired by the district attorney’s office in 1977. Cosgrove gave him his first job.
“John was a marvelous young man who worked very hard for us,” Cosgrove recalled.
A notorious client
In 1985, after serving four years as chief of the Justice Courts Bureau, Michalek left the DA’s office and established a Hamburg law firm with two partners, Daniel J. Henry and Robert M. Vallarini, who later would win election as an Erie County legislator. Michalek handled some criminal defense work with the law firm, and his most famous – or infamous – client was the late Richard W. Matt.
Michalek represented Matt in a number of criminal matters in the early 1990s. Matt jumped into the national headlines last summer when he and another inmate escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora. After nearly three weeks on the run, Matt was shot and killed by police last June.
Michalek became active in Town of Hamburg politics, and he was named assistant town attorney in 1988. Hamburg political figures say Michalek was an invaluable aide to Vincent J. Sorrentino, who was the town attorney and also the chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party. After Hamburg’s town supervisor, Jack Quinn, was elected to Congress, Michalek was appointed to take his place as interim supervisor for the year of 1993.
In 1994 – with a big push from Sorrentino – Michalek was selected by party leaders to get both the Democratic and Republican Party endorsements for State Supreme Court judge. With no actual competition, he won election for his first 14-year term in November 1994.
He has not been a controversial figure as a judge, but has handled some high-profile cases. In a 2012 ruling, he awarded more than $2.7 million – or more than $230,000 each – to 12 white Buffalo firefighters who alleged they were passed over for promotions because of their race. City officials vehemently disagreed with the ruling, which was later overturned by an appeals court.
In April of this year, Michalek made a ruling that barred former Buffalo School Board James M. Sampson from the ballot for this year’s election. Michalek agreed with opponents of Sampson who said he did not have enough legitimate signatures on his nominating petition.
One local attorney, Arthur Giacalone, said he had a bad experience with Michalek and felt he treated him and his client unfairly during a 2014 trial. But most attorneys and court officials interviewed by The News in recent weeks said Michalek had a solid reputation.
Allegations shock peers
“I always considered him to be a decent guy, hardworking and diligent,” said one former colleague, Salvatore R. Martoche, a former state appellate judge now in private practice. “I honestly can’t say anything negative about him because I don’t know anything bad about him.”
“I practiced before him on several different lawsuits, and I thought he was fair and very careful,” said Cosgrove, Michalek’s former boss. “As far as I am concerned, his past and present reputations are marvelous. I don’t know of anything contrary to that. I’d have to understand every part of what happened before I made any judgments on him.”
Acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. was not involved in the Michalek probe, but he held a press conference after Wednesday’s court session to talk about the importance of prosecuting judges and other government officials who violate the public trust.
Flaherty called Michalek’s case “a sad and intolerable ... disheartening” situation.
The acting DA said he cannot recall another instance of a State Supreme Court judge in Western New York being accused or convicted of bribery-related charges.
A tall man who enjoyed playing pickup basketball with local attorneys, Michalek is described by friends as a devoted husband and father who has donated his time to St. Francis High School and other charitable and not-for-profit organizations.
One longtime Hamburg politician, who spoke on the condition that he or she would not be identified, expressed shock after learning of Michalek’s close relationship with a controversial political power broker like Pigeon.
“Knowing John as I do, I cannot fathom him doing anything illegal,” said the politician, a friend of Michalek’s for more than three decades. “I’ve known unsavory people in politics, but I can’t imagine John being one of them.”
When asked if he ever imagined that Michalek would take bribes or do anything else that was illegal, Cosgrove exclaimed: “Goodness, gracious no!”