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Looking back at the rise and fall of political operative Steve Pigeon

Back in early 2015, G. Steven Pigeon was preparing for his ultimate campaign experience.

It wouldn’t be long, upstate New York’s consummate political insider confided to friends, before he would head to Iowa to assist Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House. He would be there every step of the way, he told them.

But Pigeon never went to Iowa. Not long after his boast, state and federal investigations of his political fundraising thwarted the Clinton adventure he so eagerly anticipated.

Since then, the rest of Pigeon’s world – all revolving around his lifelong obsession with politics – has collapsed, too. His tenure with a Rochester law firm dissolved. He owes the federal government more than $330,000 in back taxes. His short-lived Albany lobbying career evaporated.

[G. Steven Pigeon indicted on nine counts, pleads not guilty]

And after decades of strutting through the halls of power in Buffalo, Albany and Washington, the welcome mat was withdrawn.

Everything changed May 28, 2015, when a law enforcement swarm raided his Buffalo home. The onetime confidant of a president, governors, billionaires and insiders surrendered to answer state indictments. Now the Buffalo attorney who often joined President Bill Clinton at the White House and was a top political adviser to Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces corruption charges.

Few people in Western New York history have immersed themselves in politics more than Gerald Steven Pigeon. At 55, he has dwelled in the inner sanctums of power for more than three decades.

That’s what he does, according to those who know him. He identifies the rich and powerful, works his way into their inner circle, and establishes a base of operations.

“Steve has an uncanny ability to be here, there and everywhere and wield his influence,” said former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello. “In some cases, that influence is real, in some cases it’s overblown.”

[Graphic: G. Steven Pigeon's far-reaching political connections]

Mostly, the Buffalo attorney finds access to money and uses his special expertise in creating independent political committees able to exceed normal campaign contribution limits. His unabashed passion for politics eventually led to official posts in the Democratic Party and the State Senate, enabling his own political machinery to labor for chosen candidates.

The list of his patrons and business associates is impressive: wealthy developer Anthony R. Nanula, businessman Hormoz Mansouri, billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, whiskey heiresses Clare and Sara Bronfman, mall developer Scott R. Congel.

Political allies include Bill and Hillary Clinton, former House Majority and Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, former State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada Jr., retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, Mayor Byron W. Brown, former Erie County Executives Dennis T. Gorski and Joel A. Giambra, and many others.

FOR SPORTS - President Clinton waves to Sabres fans during the first period at the HSBC arena in Buffalo, Dec. 10, 2008. Mark Mulville/Buffalo News

G. Steven Pigeon is seen to the left of former President Bill Clinton during a 2008 visit by Clinton to a Sabres game. To Clinton's immediate left is B. Thomas Golisano. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Pigeon plucked Nanula from the family business, installed him first in the State Senate and then as Buffalo city comptroller, ultimately failing in the statewide ambitions they coveted.

He introduced Mansouri to local politics, where the wealthy engineer quickly established himself as an influential financier.

And Pigeon supplied Cuomo with rare and early backing for his failed gubernatorial bid in 2002, earning a political friend. When Cuomo became governor in 2011, local Democrats say, Pigeon wielded as much political influence in Western New York as the micromanaging Cuomo would allow, and contributed $54,000 to his campaign fund in 2011 and 2013.

In 2005, when Pigeon morphed into a political liability before his first mayoral run, Brown cut him loose – only to welcome him back several years later – one more instance of his remarkable ability for political survival.

[Detailing the nine counts against Steve Pigeon]

But some, including former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha – who helped initiate the current probe with a 2013 complaint to the Erie County Board of Elections – view Pigeon as the local root of corrupt politics. Pigeon has survived and prospered because he can, Sacha said. No law enforcement – until now – has attempted to rein in such a connected political power.

“Certain people, it seems to me, are not treated the same as everybody else,” Sacha said. “Pigeon is just one example of people who take advantage of that and cause great damage to our legal system and our institutions.”

Larry Quinn, meanwhile, currently a member of the Buffalo School Board, experienced Pigeon firsthand as the former managing partner of the Buffalo Sabres. He credits him with brokering Golisano’s purchase of the National Hockey League team in 2003.

He also recalled one incident in which Pigeon donated heavily to a favorite political cause without telling Golisano – immediately incurring the billionaire’s wrath.

[Evidence shows tangled web involving judge, ‘Unc Steve’]

“That’s classic Steve,” Quinn said. “He pushes things to the edge. But I don’t think he’s a crook.”

Vincent J. Sorrentino, Pigeon’s predecessor as Erie County Democratic chairman, said his longtime friend encouraged him to end former Chairman Joseph F. Crangle’s 23-year reign back in 1988.

“Knowing Steve, I’m sure he checks things out and makes sure he would never do anything criminal and always play by the rules,” Sorrentino said.

“If he’s your friend, no matter what happens, he’s your friend. Of course, if you screw him, he’ll look to get even.”

Pigeon's early start in politics

The political bug bit Pigeon as a youngster in St. Louis, where his Buffalo-born father worked as an air traffic controller. His politician uncle, meanwhile, rose to majority leader of the Missouri State Senate.

“There were always campaigns going on,” Pigeon told The Buffalo News in 1996. “So even when I was 6, 7 or 8 years old, I was pulling a wagon with campaign literature.”

When his father was transferred back to Buffalo in 1972, the teenage Pigeon immersed himself in West Seneca politics. He stuffed envelopes for Assemblyman Vincent J. Graber, worked his way into the town’s Democratic Party, and eventually won his first – and only – elective office in 1988. Almost instantly, he developed a pugnacious reputation on the floor of the Erie County Legislature.

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

Former Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz of Cheektowaga, who describes his relationship with Pigeon over the years as “hot and cold,” recalls his first encounter with the rookie legislator. Pigeon was preparing for an Assembly candidacy in 1994 against Republican Sandra Lee Wirth, and Albany Democrats were in town to help.

One Democratic operative was reviewing Pigeon’s stand on issues such as abortion and gun control.

“Steve’s immediate response was ‘How should I feel? Can we do some polling?’ ” Tokasz said.

“There are certain things about which you have a principled position, things you believe. The Assembly guy couldn’t believe it. That’s when he asked me ‘if that guy has any moral compass.’ That was my first indication of who Steve was.”

Pigeon lost his Assembly race against Wirth.

Rebounding after defeats

Throughout his career, Pigeon has demonstrated a remarkable ability to rebound after defeats. His Legislature loss ultimately amounted to nothing.

At age 36, he took over the chairmanship of the Erie County Democratic Committee in 1996 with the backing of Gorski, and ultimately of Masiello. Sorrentino had sealed his fate by unsuccessfully backing David J. Swarts in a Democratic primary against Gorski for county executive the previous year, and was out.

Pigeon, a seasoned Gorski confidant who had served in Washington after working on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, was ready to make the most important move of his young career. When Masiello finally bestowed his approval and strode with Pigeon into a Niagara Square news conference, the brash operative from West Seneca commanded the machinery of upstate New York’s most powerful Democratic organization.

But problems ensued right from the start. Crangle loyalists rebelled, big spending drained the party treasury, and chaos ensued as the party leadership disintegrated.

“I have to make five different stops every time I come to Erie County, so one or another warring faction doesn’t get offended,” former State Comptroller H. Carl McCall – the 2002 candidate for governor – once said.

Pigeon’s close relationship with Golisano, the billionaire founder of Paychex Inc., also complicated his place in the party. Early in his political involvement, Golisano drafted Pigeon into his inner circle.

“What lies did you write about Steve Pigeon today?” Golisano once snarled at a reporter before beginning a campaign news conference at Prior Aviation in Cheektowaga.

LOCAL GOLISANO --- Tom Golisano , left, talks with Steve Pigeon at the HSBC Arena in between periods where the Buffalo Sabres were playing the Toronto Maple Leafs on 1/24/03 in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo by John Hickey

Tom Golisano, left, talks with G. Steven Pigeon in between periods of a Sabres game in 2003. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Golisano, though, was not a Democrat. When he launched a serious and multimillion-dollar effort for governor on the new Independence line inspired by H. Ross Perot’s third-party presidential campaign of 1992, the Erie County Democratic chairman remained close. Golisano ran for governor three times on the Independence line, spending about $74 million in the process. All the while during the 1998 election, Pigeon supposedly backed New York City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone, the Democrat.

Then, in 2000, Swarts attempted to dislodge Pigeon as county Democratic chairman, culminating in a raucous meeting of the entire county committee at Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Pigeon emerged victorious but wounded.

“If he … can’t get the party all back together, it’s just going to be war for two years,” former Amherst Democratic Chairman Dennis E. Ward – now a State Supreme Court justice after having served as a county elections commission – observed at the time, adding that the re-elected leader had to “step up to the plate” to make that happen.

“But I don’t believe he’s capable of it,” said Ward, a longtime Pigeon critic.

By 2002, after a conclave of Democratic leaders on the second floor of Cole's Restaurant in Elmwood Village, even Pigeon realized he no longer enjoyed enough backing to continue. He did not seek a second term.

“Steve could talk politics until the middle of the night,” observed his successor as Democratic chairman, Leonard R. Lenihan, who also served as county legislature chairman and later as an elections commissioner. “But could he run a day-to-day operation? Absolutely not.”

Lenihan inherited an Ellicott Square headquarters deeply in debt and devoid of files compiled over the years on voter registration, donors or any kind of party business.

“There was a consensus among the elected officials to make him chairman and then a consensus among the same electeds that he had to go,” Masiello recalled. “Steve did not have the temperament, the style or the personality. He just had a hard time bringing people together.”

The former mayor likened party chairmen to baseball managers – they are hired to get fired. But he also said Pigeon easily wore out his party welcome.

“He’s very good at creating chaos, and that wears on people after a while,” Masiello said. “The more people you go after, the more come after you.”

Pigeon had close ties with Tom Golisano

In recent years, Pigeon’s activities continue to center largely around Golisano. Underberg & Kessler, the law firm for which Pigeon worked, handled much of Golisano’s extensive business dealings. Pigeon was there to execute all of the billionaire’s political whims, too.

The Senate coup of 2009, which installed a Democratic majority in the Legislature’s upper house for a short time, ranks chief among Golisano’s political adventures. After Golisano’s Responsible New York fund spent $4.4 million the previous fall, mostly on Democrats whom he thought would advance his “reform agenda,” Golisano grew disenchanted with the results. And because Golisano and Pigeon helped broker the late-2008 deal that crowned Sen. Malcolm A. Smith of Queens as majority leader, Pigeon said that much more was expected.

When Smith played with his BlackBerry while Golisano voiced his concerns, Golisano was furious, Pigeon recalled. “What the BlackBerry thing symbolized was how little weight they gave us,” Pigeon said then.

The coup eventually collapsed, although Pigeon spent several years as a top Senate lawyer as a result.

“Clearly, his association with Tom Golisano and Golisano’s sincere desire for change is one of the driving factors,” George D. Maziarz, a former Republican senator from Newfane and another key plotter, said at the time. “Steve was the catalyst.”

Not all of Pigeon’s relationship with Golisano ended in such chaos. When the Buffalo Sabres franchise was foundering in the Adelphia financial scandal, Pigeon persuaded the Rochesterian to become the team’s savior.

Quinn recalled that Golisano often had to remind Pigeon of who owned the Sabres. But Quinn gives Pigeon credit. “I don’t think Tom Golisano would have saved the Sabres if Steve had not brought him in. No question,” he said. “And I don’t think the Sabres would be here.

“He’s the one who got Tom interested. Even if his interest was political, it doesn’t matter. He did it.”

Pigeon explains his obsession with politics

In his last interview with The News in February 2015 as state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s probe was closing in, Pigeon offered a rationale for his obsession with politics. He can afford big donations to a political cause the same way others could contribute to a church, he said, especially with no wife or children to support. He said he takes few vacations, has no real hobbies and lives unextravagantly.

“I do this because I received a raw deal at the end of my chairmanship and see a party that used to be a powerhouse in state politics now reduced to a shadow of its former self,” he said. “It’s an embarrassment statewide, and I hate to see that happen to a party with this tradition.”

Most sources close to Pigeon say the political wheeler-dealer has been lying low since serious investigations began surrounding him almost 20 months ago. He is no longer regularly seen around the State Capitol, and presides over fewer power lunches at favorite Buffalo haunts such as Chef’s, DiTondo’s or Marco’s.

In recent years, Pigeon has developed extensive consulting projects in Eastern European countries such as Ukraine. Domestic clients and associates have included Clark, the retired NATO commander, and former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver.

Golisano, meanwhile, remains very much a part of Pigeon’s life and career. When he ultimately sold the Sabres to another billionaire – Terry Pegula – Golisano again waded into politics in a well-publicized but unsuccessful effort to reform the Electoral College. Again, Pigeon was at his side.

The consummate insider also introduced Golisano to Bill Clinton in an important philanthropic initiative. Golisano would never say how much he has given the former president’s foundation, except to characterize it as several million dollars. Clinton even enjoyed two Sabres games from Golisano’s box in what is now First Niagara Center.

Several sources close to Pigeon say he has recently spent considerable time at Golisano’s Florida home to escape the pressures of the investigation.

As Pigeon attracted more legal scrutiny, the billionaire defended his friend. Like previous investigations of Pigeon that involved his Responsible New York campaign, Golisano said in 2015 that the probes went nowhere because nothing illegal ever occurred.

“In politics, a lot of people and reporters say a lot of things,” Golisano said. “They should either show something or shut up.”

In the 2015 interview, Pigeon predicted the latest probe of his activities would fizzle, just like all those before. He blames his troubles on enemies and a consequence of the way he conducts his politics.

Is it all worth it?

“Probably not,” he said then. “It’s probably not worth taking these yearly hits. But I will always be a player, one way or another.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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