When G. Steven Pigeon backed his occasional business partner Gary R. Parenti for state Assembly in 2006, one of Pigeon’s political organizations donated $3,400 – the maximum contribution allowed in a primary campaign then. The law firm where Pigeon worked at the time donated another $2,500. Pigeon’s mother donated $3,250. And Pigeon’s bookkeeper donated $2,500, records show, but she told The Buffalo News that the money came from a Pigeon account she has authority to use and that he directed her to write the check. She also wrote a second check for $1,000 to Parenti’s campaign, again at Pigeon’s direction.
The total contribution from Pigeon-related sources to Parenti’s failed Assembly campaign: $12,650 – more than triple the amount any one donor could legally contribute in the primary and almost double the $6,800 any one donor could legally contribute in the primary and general election campaigns combined.
It’s a complicated money trail but not necessarily illegal, as long as campaign donation limits and other state election laws governing political spending are met.
Pigeon often used multiple fundraising committees and other political entities he controlled to support candidates.
He did it for Charles M. Swanick in 2012, when the former Erie County legislator was running for state Senate and got almost $13,000 in total contributions from three Pigeon-related donors – twice the maximum any one donor was permitted to give in the primary.
He did it for Mark A. Manna in the 2013 Amherst town supervisor race, when two different Pigeon-related groups – a consulting firm and a political committee – spent twice what one committee could donate to the Democratic candidate.
And he did it for Richard Dobson, whose 2013 campaign for Erie County Sheriff attracted money from three different Pigeon organizations, one of which spent tens of thousands of dollars on television commercials supporting the Democratic candidate.
And there were others.
A News examination of campaign finance reports found Pigeon involved with at least 12 different entities that spent more than $5.2 million to support favored candidates and political organizations and activities over the past 15 years. He used a maze of entities – political action committees, independent expenditure committees, limited liability companies – that have different privileges and are regulated by different rules.
State election law limits how much money some types of committees can donate to a single candidate in an election year. Other types of committees, such as the one that purchased television advertising to support Dobson, can spend endlessly but are prohibited from coordinating, or colluding, with the candidates they support.
The News’ review of the campaign finance reports, which are filed with the state Board of Elections, creates a map of Pigeon’s political activities.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman recently obtained indictments against Pigeon and State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek on unrelated charges of bribery and corruption.
But it was Pigeon’s political money machine that initially got state and federal investigators interested in the former Erie County Democratic chairman.
Their probe, now nearly at least a year old, is not finished, according to Schneiderman.
"It is an ongoing investigation," Schneiderman recently said when asked about the original complaints concerning Pigeon’s election activities.
One of the candidates Pigeon supported – Dobson, the unsuccessful candidate for Erie County sheriff – said he was interviewed by state and federal investigators last year just weeks before Pigeon’s home was raided by authorities in May 2015. He said they asked him about campaign spending connected to Pigeon’s organizations.
"I met with the FBI and New York State police," Dobson said. "We had a conversation for more than two hours. I answered all their questions."
The investigators didn’t identify what, in particular, they were focused on but asked about the television ads supporting Dobson’s campaign that Pigeon’s political committee bought, Dobson said.
Complaints previously filed by the Erie County Board of Elections, and forwarded to state officials, allege that Pigeon’s extensive campaign apparatus exceeded donation limits, thus hiding the sources of money and violating campaign collusion rules.
Pigeon, his attorney and his political associates either did not return calls or declined to comment for this article. But over the years, they have acknowledged some reporting errors, while repeatedly denying anything illegal.
"It’s been looked at time and time again, and it’s never gone anywhere," Pigeon told The News in 2013 of his contributions and influence. "It’s not because some prosecutor is afraid of me but because I follow the rules."
The financial reports The News examined detail how political money was raised and how it was spent.
The biggest of the campaign funds Pigeon was involved with is Responsible New York. It spent $4.4 million, primarily in 2008 and 2009. Billionaire B. Thomas Golisano donated the money, and Pigeon managed the funds. Together, they attempted to influence state legislature elections, then orchestrate what turned out to be a failed coup in the state Senate.
Pigeon also is tied to at least five other political fundraising committees – WNY Progressive Caucus, WNY Freedom, Change WNY Now, Citizens for Fiscal Integrity and People for Accountable Government – that spent a total of $400,000.
In addition, about $55,000 in political contributions and political spending occurred via two political consulting/lobbying firms Pigeon is associated with: Landen Associates and Papi Holdings.
There also was about $47,000 in contributions from the law firm Pigeon worked with for over a decade, Underberg & Kessler.
And a separate limited liability company, GSDP, was created in 2003 using the law firm’s Buffalo address in papers filed with the New York Department of State. Almost half the $51,200 in contributions the company made went to other political committees connected to Pigeon.
The News also identified almost $250,000 Pigeon personally spent to support political candidates and organizations during the years examined.
Another $26,883 was contributed from a Cheektowaga address that is the home of his bookkeeper, Alexandra Schmid.
Schmid is listed in campaign reports as making 40 different contributions totaling $11,883 over the past 10 years. But Schmid told The News the contributions were from Pigeon.
As Pigeon’s personal bookkeeper, Schmid said, her name was added to one of Pigeon’s checking accounts so she could write checks to pay bills on his behalf. The campaign contributions, she said, were checks she wrote from the account at Pigeon’s direction.
Another $15,000 in unitemized contributions were also made to a political fund called Upstate Leadership Committee using the bookkeeper’s address.
The spending by all the Pigeon-related entities ebbed and flowed over the 15 years, hitting a peak in 2008, when Responsible New York was most active.
Another bubble occurred in 2012 and 2013, when Pigeon backed several Democratic candidates against candidates supported by Erie County Democratic leaders.
Pigeon’s campaign finance activity all but ended last May, when the attorney general’s investigators raided his home, making public the investigation into the political operative’s activities. Contributions and expenditures recorded this year by Pigeon-related entities amounted to less than $1,000, The News found.
The financial reports detail Pigeon’s involvement at every level of government.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo received the largest amount of direct contributions from Pigeon and his political committees: $61,500 since 2009, including a $50,000 personal contribution from Pigeon in 2013.
Others receiving more than $10,000 in direct contributions from Pigeon and the other entities are:
• Senate candidate Swanick, who received $12,950 when running for state Senate in 2012.
• Parenti, who received $12,650 in a failed campaign for the Assembly in 2006.
• Byron W. Brown, who received a total of $12,150 over 12 years, with $2,750 dating to 2003-04, when the mayor was a state senator.
• Former state Sen. George D. Maziarz, who received a total of $11,500 in 2008 from two Pigeon-related entities.
• Former state Sen. Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, who received $10,500 directly from Pigeon in 2009 and 2010.
Contributions also went to three presidential candidates, totaling $10,500 since 2003.
• Richard Gephardt received $2,000 from Pigeon in 2003.
• John Kerry received $1,000 in 2004.
• Hillary Clinton received a total of $7,500 over 2006, 2007 and 2015, but Clinton’s campaign returned $2,700 that Pigeon donated in 2015 for the current presidential campaign.
[RELATED: Tracing Pigeon's Clinton Connection]
The campaign finance reports show Pigeon created a money machine that in some ways resembles the limited liability company (LLC) loophole critics have been trying to close for years.
The state limits corporate donations to $5,000 annually, but it allows corporations to create a seemingly endless number of limited liability companies under the auspices of the larger corporation. Each LLC is allowed to contribute as if it were an individual donor, with higher limits than a corporation.
In Pigeon’s case, instead of using multiple LLCs, he relied on multiple political committees and related entities, alongside a couple of LLCs.
Pigeon and Golisano also went a step further, creating what are known as independent expenditure committees.
While political action committees make donations directly to candidates, which are subject to the donation limits, independent expenditure committees run what are effectively parallel campaigns. Instead of donating to other campaigns, they create and purchase their own mailings, television advertising and other campaign materials either in support of, or against, candidates.
They are not subject to spending limits but are forbidden from coordinating with the candidates they support.
The Pigeon spending peaked in 2008 when he and Golisano teamed up to create a political committee called Responsible New York.
Golisano provided the money, and Pigeon provided the political skills. The goal was to reform state government, first by bringing new leadership to the GOP-controlled state Senate.
Within two years, Responsible New York spent $4.4 million.
In October 2008, the political committee made $111,250 in donations to 110 different Assembly and Senate candidates. Many donations were in the $250 to $500 range, but some Senate candidates received as much as $5,000. Maziarz, the former senator from Niagara County, received $9,500. That was the maximum donation allowed in Senate general election races that year.
But that was just the beginning.
Responsible New York morphed into a hybrid: sometimes acting as a political action committee that donated money directly to candidates, but more often as an independent expenditure committee running its own campaign without regard to campaign limits. Such hybrid committees have been allowed in New York because the growth of independent expenditure committees is relatively new. (The rules are expected to change soon, and committees will not be permitted to function as hybrids, state election officials said).
As an independent expenditure committee, Responsible New York spent $2 million on television advertising in the legislature races and $1.4 million on political literature and mailings, spending reports show. Money was also spent on polling and political consultants.
When the campaign season ended, about $4.2 million was spent as independent expenditure money – not subject to spending limits, as long as there was no coordination with the candidates being supported.
And who were those candidates?
Responsible New York does not appear to have filed required reports explaining which candidates it was backing and which candidates it was opposing with independent expenditure funds, according to the New York State Board of Elections. Additionally, Responsible New York did not report how much was spent on each race.
But the committee did detail its payments to vendors and other political committees.
Among them are four organizations tied to Pigeon, which received a total of $276,000. The spending included almost $140,000 in consulting fees and $128,600 in printing payments to one of Pigeon’s consulting/lobbying firms, $780 in professional fees to the law firm where Pigeon worked and $7,000 in direct contributions to two Pigeon PACs.
Responsible New York also reported making a $3,000 contribution to People for a Responsible New York, which used an address tied to Parenti, who is the treasurer of the Responsible New York committee and an occasional business partner with Pigeon.
Parenti ran for the Assembly in 2006. The $3,000 contribution does not show up on the People for a Responsible New York reports.
Following the political season of 2008, this Pigeon-Golisano political network came under the scrutiny of state lawyers. When they completed their investigation in 2009, this is what Peter J. Kiernan, an attorney for former Gov. David Patterson, said:
"We concluded the existence of a pattern of violations of election law, some of which may involve money laundering or deliberate evasion of requirements of the election law."
Fast forward four years to 2013.
Democratic primaries for Erie County sheriff and four county Legislature seats could have been sleepy races. Instead, they went wild.
And an Amherst town supervisor race also perked up.
Pigeon-backed committees helped fund insurgents challenging the Democratic Party candidates for county offices.
Pigeon’s political consulting firm, Landen Associates, contributed $150 to two legislature candidates and $1,800 to Dobson’s campaign for sheriff, records show. Landen also gave $4,800, the maximum allowed, to Amherst Councilman Manna, a Democrat running for Amherst town supervisor.
Another Pigeon committee, WNY Freedom, donated $8,000 to Dobson, according to Dobson’s campaign filings. The WNY Freedom committee did not report the contribution.
Then, a newly created committee, WNY Progressive Caucus, jumped into the races. Pigeon seems to have modeled it after Responsible New York but on a smaller scale.
It had $240,000, records show, including about $100,000 in loans and donations from Pigeon’s own pocket. Most of this was spent as independent expenditure money.
WNY Progressive Caucus paid for television commercials supporting Dobson over Democratic Party sheriff’s candidate Bert Dunn. About $60,000 in commercials aired in the days leading up to the primary.
Another $100,000 in WNY Progressive Caucus money financed literature in various local races, including four Erie County Legislature races, almost all in the days leading up to the primary. Another $45,000 went to consultants.
It also began buying campaign signs and mailings supporting Manna’s Amherst town supervisor campaign.
At the Erie County Board of Elections, Republican commissioner Ralph M. Mohr suggested Pigeon’s money machine had crossed the line.
"This is an attempt to exceed the limits and conceal the true identify of where money comes from," Mohr said of Pigeon’s overall strategy.
Mohr, along with some Democratic Party leaders, also accuses the WNY Progressive Caucus of illegally coordinating with some of the candidates it supported.
WNY Progressive Caucus spent more on the Dobson race for sheriff than the candidate’s committee did, Mohr said.
And the dates when Manna and WNY Progressive Caucus purchased literature are in sequential order, Mohr said, as if coordinated.
What’s more, the connections between the various Pigeon-related committees – some acting as independent expenditures committees, others as traditional PACs, and some as both – make it difficult to completely separate one Pigeon committee from another when a candidate receives support from multiple Pigeon-related committees, Mohr said.
Pigeon has previously denied the charges.
So do the candidates he supported, who say there was no collaboration between their campaigns and the Pigeon committees.
Dobson said he was as surprised as everyone else when television ads began appearing supporting his candidacy.
"I was a pawn in someone else’s agenda," Dobson said. "The first time I saw the commercials was when I turned on the TV."
Manna also denied any coordination between his committee and Pigeon’s.
Similar to Dobson, Manna said he didn’t know anything about WNY Progressive Caucus’ buying signs and mailers supporting his campaign until the signs and mailers started appearing in town.
Still, with all the various entities Pigeon is using to raise and spend political money, questions remain – even among Democrats.
"If all this is legal, it shouldn’t be," said Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party.
Leonard R. Lenihan, the Democratic commissioner on the Erie County Board of Elections, said: "The book isn’t closed on this yet. We’ll have to wait and see."