G. Steven Pigeon, one of upstate New York’s most powerful political operatives whose campaign activities have spawned controversy for more than two decades, finally faced his day in court Thursday. He was arraigned on nine separate charges including bribery and extortion, rewarding official misconduct and third degree grand larceny.
The former Erie County Democratic chairman appeared in a packed courtroom before State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. of the Syracuse judicial district to answer the flip side of bribery charges that resulted in two guilty pleas and the resignation of former Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek on Wednesday.
The nine-count indictment against Pigeon includes two counts of bribery, six counts of rewarding official misconduct and one count of grand larceny, for the alleged extortion.
If found guilty on all of the charges, Pigeon could face up to 15 years in jail for bribery and other charges. He pleaded not guilty to all nine charges.
Prosecutors requested $25,000 dollars in bail. Pigeon's lawyer, top defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr., pointed out that Michalek was released on his own recognizance after the former judge acknowledged he committed a crime. He said Pigeon should be presumed innocent. But Cerio set bail at $10,000 cash, $20,000 bond. He also ordered Pigeon to surrender his passport.
Dressed in a dark blue suit, Pigeon appeared nervous but composed during the short session. He answered the judge's questions directly, and avoided reporters by leaving the courtroom through a back door.
Steve Pigeon atty Paul Cambria denies bribery charges against his client filed Thursday by AG. pic.twitter.com/8fbMD2Vmiy
— Bob McCarthy (@bobmccarthybn) June 30, 2016
"He vehemently denies any wrongdoing," Cambria told reporters after the court appearance. "We're looking forward to our day in court... The grand jury is a one-sided event. It's just an accusation. We'll deal with it in court."
Cambria also said his client rejected a plea deal offered by prosecutors after a special grand jury empaneled by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman returned a sealed indictment on Wednesday that was opened in court on Thursday.
"There was such an offer made," Cambria said. "But it was not even considered seriously."
While The Buffalo News has reported on several aspects of the case including Pigeon's dealing with Michalek that resulted in bribery charges, Thursday's court session revealed a new count of third degree grand larceny. Assistant Attorney General Susan H. Sadinsky told the court that as part of Pigeon's dealings with Michalek, he asked for the judge to "get his guy" to act as receiver in a foreclosure case.
Sadinsky said Pigeon attempted to persuade the receiver to fire the property's managers and replace them with "cronies," She indicated Pigeon extorted money from the receiver in retaliation when he refused to hire the cronies. Sadinsky said the money was listed as consulting services that were never performed. The charge alleges that Pigeon extorted $3,000.
"Steve has pleaded not guilty to all the counts, including that one," Cambria said after the court session.
Here's Paul Cambria's statement on the Pigeon case https://t.co/SuoIWKlhh7
— Qina Liu (@qinaliu) June 30, 2016
Pigeon’s arraignment, his first criminal charges despite years of complaints from political opponents and election officials, follows a more-than-20-month investigation. It also follows more than a year of official silence since Schneiderman’s agents, the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI all swooped down on Pigeon’s Admiral’s Walk condominium on May 28, 2015, along with the homes of former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant, former chief of staff to Rep. Chris Collins.
“As we allege in today’s indictment, Steve Pigeon engaged in a multiyear scheme to bribe a sitting state judge in an effort to win access and favors for his clients and associates,” Schneiderman said in a Thursday statement before his scheduled appearance in Buffalo later in the afternoon. “I will not stand for this kind of brazen contempt for the rule of law and the interests of everyday New Yorkers. Anyone who breaches the public trust will be held accountable by my office. Our investigation is ongoing.”
The grand jury, which sources say has summoned a stream of witnesses to Schneiderman’s Buffalo office in Main Place Tower over the past two months, also returned Wednesday’s indictment against Michalek, with sources indicating more charges may follow in the coming weeks.
The Wednesday indictment, as well as Thursday’s anticipated charges against Pigeon, all stem from the emails seized in the 2015 raid.
The charges before Pigeon also stem from that same correspondence with the judge. Court documents indicate Michalek repeatedly asked for Pigeon’s help in gaining a government job for a relative and even for Pigeon to wield his influence in assisting his application for a gubernatorial appointment to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court.
The case against Pigeon – the former Erie County Democratic chairman – originally took shape on complaints of election law violations. But the resulting charges relate to far more serious charges involving judicial bribery.
Still, the genesis of the case lies with complaints filed by former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha and Erie County Legislators Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues, both Buffalo Democrats. Sacha, Grant and Hogues complained to the Erie County Board of Elections over how the Pigeon-connected WNY Progressive Caucus raised $267,000 in 2013 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Party headquarters.
DA candidate Mark Sacha reacts to indictment of G. Steven Pigeon here:
Several major donations – including about $100,000 from Pigeon and $80,000 from State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo – highlighted campaign finance reports filed by the Caucus.
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 acknowledged its course of action, but it was known that it voted to refer the complaint to the attorney general.
From there, State Police began investigating the case, along with Schneiderman’s investigators 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 illegal coordination with individual candidates.
Pigeon has always denied coordination between his political organization and other campaigns. But sources indicated at the investigation’s onset 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 claim illegal coordination with individual campaigns.
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.
The case has since developed “an unbelievable number of tentacles” according to one source, underscoring the new avenues that became open to investigators.