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FBI’s interviews stir discontent among Erie County Democrats

For Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner, Saturday’s reorganization meeting was supposed to prove a no muss, no fuss affair.

Zellner faces no announced opposition for another two-year term as chairman, and compared to many of the party’s raucous elections of the past, the meeting at the Grapevine Banquet Center in Depew was supposed to celebrate the sweep of victories by headquarters candidates in last week’s primaries.

But now rumblings of discontent are infesting the party once again following reports that the FBI last week interviewed two members of the committee in connection with Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s probe of campaign funds spent in the 2014 elections for State Senate.

While nobody is predicting Saturday’s meeting will result in anything but Zellner’s re-election, dissidents are – at the least – raising questions.

“Chairman Zellner needs to play by the rules he created, and answer questions about his alleged meeting with the FBI,” said James J. Eagan, until recently secretary of the Democratic State Committee. “By avoiding the question, he is putting the fall elections of his endorsed Democratic candidates at risk.

“It is imperative that Saturday’s meeting be postponed until Mr. Zellner addresses this issue,” he added.

Peter A. Reese, an attorney and committee member from North Buffalo, has also called for the reorganization meeting to be delayed.

“He has made comments in the past that we will not support people who are under investigation,” he said. “If he is a man of his word, he will wait.”

Zellner has refused to answer phone calls from The Buffalo News regarding details of the FBI interviews, which a source close to the situation earlier in the week confirmed took place. The source also would not identify those questioned, and nobody has confirmed Eagan’s contention that Zellner was among them.

But Margaret A. Murphy, an attorney and member of the party’s Executive Committee, for the first time on Friday officially acknowledged that FBI agents conducted the interviews. But she said she has been asked not to discuss details, except that both of those interviewed are not considered targets. She also would not disclose who was questioned.

“We were asked specifically not to discuss the meeting or what documents are asked of us because it could affect the investigation,” she said. “We were also told the focus is on other places.”

She said the FBI asked for documents, which the party is now assembling.

“The scope of what we were asked for is very broad,” she said, “and we are trying to be transparent.”

Zellner, meanwhile, did not attend a rare meeting of the New York State Democratic Committee held in Buffalo on Monday – the same day as the FBI interviews.

The News reported in May that the office of acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. was asking questions about campaign donations to a Buffalo-based State Senate race in 2014 as part of a statewide investigation that extends to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

At the time, Flaherty said he would not discuss details, but acknowledged the involvement of his office. Sources familiar with Flaherty’s effort say it revolves around the 60th District race in 2014 won by Democrat Marc C. Panepinto.

Again this week, Flaherty would not provide any more detail in response to questions.

“Obviously, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on an investigation being conducted by the FBI,” he said.

The source also said the latest questions posed by the FBI stem from “tentacles” of the joint state-federal probe that resulted in the June 30 indictment of former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon on nine counts of bribery and extortion. Bribery charges were also lodged against former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who resigned after more than 20 years on the bench.

The News also reported in March 2015 that Erie County’s Democratic and Republican chairmen asked most of the 2014 Supreme Court aspirants to pony up $4,000 each for campaign literature aimed at the Independence Party primary. The effort was billed as an attempt to gain support of the minor party for the November general election, but questions have remained about how the money was spent on the Democratic side.

Other sources say there have been no FBI questions about Republican activity during the 2014 judicial election.

The FBI agents here Monday were asking the two local Democrats about their solicitation of the $4,000 each from aspirants to the bench in the 2014 judicial campaign, according to the source with knowledge of the investigation. Some of those judicial candidates had no chance of receiving Zellner’s nod.

The questions about the $4,000 contributions are a tangential matter of interest, the source added.


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