When three Erie County residents complained in 2013 that G. Steven Pigeon was cheating on the rules that govern raising and spending campaign funds, seasoned political observers seemed unfazed.
The Buffalo political operative’s foes had lodged similar complaints for years, they shrugged, and law enforcement never raised an eyebrow.
But when Erie County Elections Commissioners Ralph M. Mohr and Leonard R. Lenihan ruled that a Pigeon-connected fund of $267,000 had violated election law, that set in motion events culminating in two major criminal proceedings last week in a Buffalo courtroom.
Now, Pigeon and former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek face felony charges and possible prison time because authorities took the rare step of investigating election law violations.
The investigation that started when then-Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha and County Legislators Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues, both D-Buffalo, alleged that the WNY Progressive Caucus had illegally coordinated political campaigns.
State and federal investigators say the probe has not ended and that more charges could be brought.
Pigeon’s penchant for creating and running independent political committees that exploit election law loopholes remains at the heart of complaints still on the agenda of state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and the FBI. Some of the operations are not directly traced to him but bear discernible “Pigeon prints.” In others, he proudly led the efforts.
In 2007, for example, Pigeon hooked up with a onetime political nemesis – Joel A. Giambra. The former Republican county executive contributed to a fund called Citizens for Fiscal Integrity at a time when his political powers were at low ebb.
The Citizens for Fiscal Integrity fund then financed Pigeon-favored candidates for County Legislature without a direct link to Giambra.
“Everybody knew Pigeon was funding races against endorsed Democratic candidates, but nobody knew where it was coming from (during the campaign),” Lenihan – a Pigeon foe and then-Erie County Democratic chairman – said at the time.
Pigeon used a fund called People for Accountable Government that same year for similar purposes.
By 2008, he was administering a $4.4 million campaign kitty called Responsible New York sponsored by his longtime patron, billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano, who ran three times for governor on the Independence line. Responsible New York made a huge impact with individual contributions of $600,000 and $700,000, mostly for State Senate races.
Jeremy C. Toth, a campaign aide to then-Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, in 2008 asked then-Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark to investigate his allegation that Responsible New York illegally coordinated with Hoyt’s opponent, Barbra A. Kavanaugh, in the September Democratic primary.
Similarly, State Sen. Michael H. Ranzenhofer, R-Amherst, alleged that Golisano’s group illegally coordinated its campaign with his Democratic opponent, Joe Mesi. Mesi’s opponent in the Senate primary, Michele M. Iannello, made similar complaints.
That’s when Mohr unsuccessfully complained that Golisano’s political committee was circumventing contribution limits in violation of state election law. Mohr says he and then-Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward, now a State Supreme Court justice, came to a bipartisan “meeting of the minds” to investigate a pattern of “non-reporting of monetary contributions, perceived coordination with individual candidates and a general sloppiness in paying attention to reporting requirements under the law.”
Despite their complaints, no action ensued.
In 2009, Sacha told The Buffalo News that two successive district attorneys – Clark and Frank A. Sedita III – would not prosecute Pigeon for election law violations because of his political power. Indeed, Pigeon at the time controlled which candidates received the often critical Independence line throughout upstate New York.
Sedita fired Sacha as a result of his public complaints, and then-Gov. David A. Paterson rebuffed Sacha’s request for a special prosecutor. But the governor’s counsel – Peter J. Kiernan – said his investigation found a “pattern” of election law violations in Erie County, including money laundering.
“Nobody has pushed this issue more than me and nobody has lost more than me and my family,” Sacha now says. “But nobody, especially district attorneys, should put politics above the law.”
As recently as last fall, Pigeon recruited longtime allies such as former Cheektowaga Democratic Chairman Frank C. Max Jr. to raise funds through an independent committee. It aimed at West Seneca Supervisor Sheila M. Meegan, daughter of Pigeon mentor and veteran town political figure Christopher P. Walsh.
By all accounts, the move cost Pigeon his longtime friendship with Walsh.