The quiet three-way contest for Erie County district attorney – the premier contest of the 2016 Democratic primary – suddenly sports a new tone.
A series of mysterious automated phone calls is arriving at some Erie County homes attempting to link John J. Flynn Jr., who has the backing of Democratic Party leaders, to G. Steven Pigeon, the Buffalo political operative now facing a nine-count indictment for bribery and extortion.
And nobody wants to take credit for the calls.
“I had nothing to do with it and nobody on my team did it,” said interim District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr.
He added he has sent the matter to the State Board of Elections for its investigation.
Mark A. Sacha, the third candidate whose 2013 complaint to the Erie County Board of Elections sparked an 18-month probe that led to charges against Pigeon by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, doesn’t buy the Flaherty line.
“It’s unethical and deceptive for Flaherty to claim Flynn is somehow closer to Pigeon than he is,” Sacha said. “It’s an absolute disrespect for the truth.”
Flynn is looking suspiciously toward the Flaherty camp, too.
“I’m convinced it’s Flaherty, quite frankly,” he said. “I don’t think Mark would do it.”
The woman’s voice placing the calls correctly points out that Flynn was a candidate for Democratic elections commissioner in 2012 when Pigeon ally Frank C. Max Jr. challenged Jeremy J. Zellner for the party chairmanship. Flynn that year was presented as an elections commissioner candidate on the Max slate, but no contest ever resulted when Max ended his candidacy.
Now that 2012 episode is part of the 2016 primary campaign for district attorney.
“John Flynn has covered up his personal link with criminally indicted former Democratic Chairman Steve Pigeon,” the phone call says, referring to Flynn as Pigeon’s “hand-picked candidate for elections commissioner in 2012.”
“John Flynn cannot fight against corruption,” the call continues. “He worked directly with Steve Pigeon. Vote ‘no’ for John Flynn on Primary Day.”
The call makes no mention of its sponsorship and does not urge support for any other candidate.
Flynn, who is now backed by Zellner and his organization, acknowledges his opposing role in 2012. He would have run for elections commissioner if Max had won, he said, but it became a moot point when Zellner prevailed for the chairmanship.
“Had Frank won, yes. But it never got that far,” Flynn said. “And I never had a conversation or any dealings with Steve about this.
“Somehow I’m in cahoots with him, and it’s not true,” he added.
Pigeon, who once played a key role in local Democratic politics as chairman in the late 1990s and later as a behind-the-scenes player, is now viewed as a political hot potato.
Sacha linked Flaherty to Pigeon in Frank A. Sedita III’s successful 2008 district attorney campaign. And Flynn has previously charged that because Flaherty worked as Sedita’s top aide, it is important to note Pigeon’s relationship.
The relationship became relevant, he said, when Sacha charged in 2009 that Sedita gave Pigeon a pass on alleged election law violations.
“It says that Flaherty either agreed and didn’t do anything (about Pigeon’s activities), or he turned a blind eye,” Flynn said in July. “Neither situation shows any leadership abilities.”
In July, Flaherty made it clear he would not allow his opponents to link him to Pigeon.
“I am not my predecessor and I established that very quickly,” he said then. “They can try to link Frank Sedita to Steve Pigeon and then to me but they have no facts to support it.”
Before the calls began circulating on Thursday, the three-way affair for district attorney had proven relatively placid. During an Aug. 25 debate Flynn and Sacha appeared to gang up on Flaherty and his record as district attorney, but broadcast advertising has so far been positive.
“It’s unfortunate. I was planning on a positive campaign,” Flynn said. “Obviously, they now want to make misleading statements and go down this path. I will respond now.”