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Power broker Pigeon charged, with hints there may be more to come

G. Steven Pigeon’s appearance in a Buffalo courtroom Thursday was only the beginning.

Where the saga of the longtime political power broker goes next, nobody knows – or if they do, they’re not saying.

But state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made this much clear later in the day: The investigation is continuing, and more charges could result.

Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo office, conspicuously joined the attorney general’s news conference after Pigeon’s arraignment on state charges, emphasizing that the federal aspect of the Pigeon probe remains very much alive.

“It’s possible there could be future charges at the federal level,” Cohen said. “This is only one prong of an active investigation by the FBI.”

Schneiderman, Cohen and a phalanx of law enforcement officials posed for reporters, seemingly in a show of force that displayed the resources dedicated to the Pigeon investigation now more than 20 months old. That investigation began to show results Wednesday, when State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek pleaded guilty to bribery charges and resigned after more than 20 years on the bench.

Pigeon appeared with defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. the next day before the Central New York judge now assigned to the case – Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr.

Pigeon, a former Erie County Democratic chairman and onetime adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, was arraigned on nine felony counts – mostly involving bribery – that could land him in prison for 15 years.

Asked later whether his special grand jury is still in session and still hearing testimony, Schneiderman would not answer. But he said the case is “ongoing” and attached significance to any case that questions the integrity of the judicial system.

“The impartiality of the judiciary is arguably the most important cornerstone of the American system of justice,” the state’s top attorney said. “For a judge to sell their office for favors or benefits is something that should offend all Americans and certainly all American lawyers.”

Prosecutors requested $25,000 bail for Pigeon, although Cambria pointed out that Michalek was released on his own recognizance after admitting that he committed a crime. Cambria said Pigeon should be presumed innocent, and Cerio set bail at $10,000 cash or $20,000 bond. The judge also ordered Pigeon to surrender his passport.

Dressed in a dark blue suit, Pigeon, 55, of Buffalo, appeared nervous but composed during the brief session. He answered the judge’s questions directly and avoided reporters, leaving the courtroom through a back door.

“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 that prosecutors offered after a special grand jury returned a sealed indictment that was opened in court Thursday.

“There was such an offer made,” Cambria said, “but it was not even considered seriously.”

Schneiderman, the only prosecutor to ever challenge Pigeon despite more than two decades of complaints from elections officials and political foes, emphasized the importance of cracking down on corrupt politicians.

He said his staff reviewed tens of thousands of emails seized in raids at the home of Pigeon and two other political operatives May 28, 2015, and also recorded hours of testimony during the grand jury that has sat in Buffalo since April. He described a “mutually beneficial scheme between these two men” that went on for at least four years.

The probe revealed efforts to find jobs for two of Michalek’s relatives, as well as extortion by Pigeon resulting from other matters on the judge’s calendar, the attorney general said. Schneiderman also said the case that his staff has assembled is clear and without “murkiness.”

While The Buffalo News has reported on several aspects of the case, including Pigeon’s dealing with Michalek that resulted in bribery charges, the court session revealed a new count of third-degree grand larceny. As part of Pigeon’s dealings with Michalek, the political operative asked the judge to “get his guy” to act as receiver in a foreclosure case, Assistant Attorney General Susan H. Sadinsky told the court. Sadinsky and Assistant Attorney General Diane M. LaVallee are prosecuting the case against Pigeon.

Sadinsky said Pigeon attempted to persuade the receiver to fire the property’s managers and replace them with “cronies.” She also alleged that 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 $5,000.

“Steve has pleaded not guilty to all the counts, including that one,” Cambria said after the court session.

The genesis of the prosecution lies with complaints that former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha and Erie County Legislators Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues lodged with the Erie County Board of Elections about a political committee tied to Pigeon. They said the Pigeon-connected WNY Progressive Caucus raised $267,000 in 2013 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Party headquarters.

Sacha, now a candidate in the Democratic primary for district attorney, watched the Pigeon proceedings in the courtroom Thursday and later talked with reporters. While Schneiderman later emphasized that the investigation continues, Sacha said he hopes the original complaints about alleged election law violations are eventually addressed.

“The only thing sad about today is there does not seem to be any action to protect free and fair elections in Erie County,” he said. “That concerns me.”

Sacha reiterated his complaints that the District Attorney’s Office has never paid attention to complaints about election law violations.

“It’s an education for the public,” Sacha said. “I am a candidate, but I think it’s important that the political bosses not control who gets elected.”