Some of the Democrats who circulated election petitions for acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty in recent weeks also gathered signatures for Assembly candidate Kristy L. Mazurek of Depew, an associate of the indicted political operative G. Steven Pigeon and treasurer of one of Pigeon's most controversial campaign funds.
Both Flaherty and Mazurek are running against headquarters-backed candidates in efforts to win the Democratic Party line in September's primaries. In their unity of purpose, both relied on some of the same hired hands to gather the hundreds of voter signatures required to make it onto the ballot.
For Flaherty, the overlap in petition-passers with Mazurek's campaign does nothing to remove the Pigeon shadow over the Erie County District Attorney's Office.
Flaherty was outgoing DA Frank A. Sedita III's chosen successor. But that has imposed a downside: Criticisms that Sedita gave family-friend Pigeon a longtime pass on potential Election Law violations have grown louder now that a probe by the Attorney General's Office has led to nine felony charges against Pigeon.
While Pigeon faces bribery-related charges, not Election Law crimes, Flaherty's opponents continue to tar Flaherty with the Pigeon brush.
“The chief law-enforcement officer in Erie County is working hand in hand with people who are being investigated by the State Police and the FBI, and at the very least, Kristy Mazurek is a cooperating witness,” said Jeremy Zellner, the Erie County Democratic Party chairman, who supports John J. Flynn of the Town of Tonawanda for the DA's job. “It's outrageous that he would put himself in this position.”
The Flaherty campaign, which used the workers in and around Cheektowaga, responded by saying, “The local party bosses are attacking Mike Flaherty because they know he is a career prosecutor who will be a strong, independent District Attorney beholden only to the people of Erie County.”
Mazurek, meanwhile, referred questions about the matter to David Pfaff, her campaign manager. Pfaff, a veteran of government and politics who also has been close to Pigeon, said there was a united petition-passing effort in the Cheektowaga area for several candidates spurned by party officials, and Mazurek and Flaherty were just two of those aided by the drive.
“In various parts of the party, where there are conflicts, you will find people working in tandem,” he said.
Like the Democratic Party countywide, the Cheektowaga party is split, between a headquarters establishment and a rebel wing of sorts. In Cheektowaga, the faction is led by former town chairman Frank Max, who had wanted to become county chairman. But that job went to Zellner.
Pfaff implied that Max put the petition-passing effort together. Max didn't immediately return telephone messages Tuesday.
Mazurek has long been encamped with Max and with the Pigeon wing of the Democratic Party. In 2013, Mazurek acted as treasurer for the WNY Progressive Caucus, which was the latest in a series of independent political committees that Pigeon has used to target Democratic candidates he does not like. Generally, his targets have been politicians backed by party headquarters.
Two of those 2013 targets, County Legislator Betty Jean Grant and former Legislator Timothy Hogues, later complained about potential Election Law violations by the Pigeon-Mazurek committee to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Grant also said she complained to Sedita, who did not begin an investigation.
Nonetheless, the Attorney General's Office, headed by Eric T. Schneiderman, eventually began a probe into Grant's complaints and similar complaints that had been voiced about Pigeon in recent years. In May 2015, The Buffalo News reported that Mazurek was cooperating with the investigation.
“She has cooperated ... she has answered questions,” a Mazurek acquaintance told The News at the time. “Kristy is in a very tough spot right now. Steve Pigeon is her friend, but she doesn't want to become a target. She's walking on a very thin line.”
Despite this past, Mazurek this year announced she would run as a Democrat to represent the 143rd Assembly District, which in recent years was held most notably by Dennis H. Gabryszak, who resigned after being caught up in a sexual harassment scandal, in which Mazurek was one of the accusers. In 2014, the Assembly seat was won by Conservative Angela Wozniak, who in campaigning said she was going to clean up Albany but decided not to run again after she was found to be having an affair with a male staffer.
The entry of Mazurek set up a potential primary contest with Monica P. Wallace, a University at Buffalo Law School professor who has the party's favor. While the Mazurek campaign has not yet filed a report on its spending to the state Board of Elections, a political fund called the Progressive Democrats of WNY may have been acting on her behalf. The fund, connected to Max, paid hundreds of dollars in recent weeks to nine people who gathered petition signatures for Mazurek, according to records on file with the state Board of Elections and petitions that The News examined at the county Board of Elections office in Buffalo.
Many of those same individuals also were paid by the Flaherty campaign to gather petition signatures, though the Flaherty campaign relied on several other unpaid helpers to gather voter signatures elsewhere.