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Operative with ties to Pigeon pleads guilty to misdemeanor election law charges

A Cheektowaga political operative with long ties to former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon pleaded guilty Wednesday to misdemeanor election law violations brought by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

But Frank C. Max Jr.’s guilty pleas in Albany City Court raise questions back in Erie County.

The Attorney General’s Office said Max, the former Cheektowaga Democratic Committee chairman, admitted to filing a false campaign finance disclosure report, as well as to filing a separate report that violated election law reporting requirements with the New York State Board of Elections.

Schneiderman’s office confirmed that the charges were reduced from the original felony indictments, which it would not discuss.

But the state officials and Max’s attorney also confirm that he is cooperating with investigators.

“He agreed to answer any questions about his conduct or that of anyone else,” said defense attorney Nicholas A. Romano of the Connors LLP law firm. “Whatever law enforcement asks him to do, he will be an open book. He is cooperating because he has nothing to hide.”

Romano added that the case settled Wednesday is separate from anything involving Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic Committee chairman indicted last June 30 on bribery charges stemming from an original complaint about alleged election law violations.

“He has no relationship with Steve Pigeon,” Romano said. “This is a separate and distinct case and has nothing to do with Steven Pigeon.”

[Related: Political operative G. Steven Pigeon indicted on bribery, extortion and 7 other charges]

The Buffalo News reported in September 2015 that Max was involved in that year’s Democratic primary in West Seneca where several incumbents charged Pigeon worked against their re-election.

The guilty pleas announcement about the new charges lodged against Max do not make any association with those complaints, nor does the state announcement note when the violations occurred.

However, a source familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified said that FBI agents asked questions of at least one person in West Seneca shortly after the 2015 primary about how money was obtained and spent during the campaign.

The FBI, State Police and Attorney General’s Office have all been involved in the Pigeon investigation. And, the case against Max announced Wednesday involves several of the prosecutors in the Pigeon investigation, including Assistant Attorneys General Susan H. Sadinsky and Diane M. LaVallee, who initiated the charges in the Pigeon case.

The two prosecutors also are prosecuting the case against former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who faces sentencing next month on bribery charges related to Pigeon.

[Related: Two prosecutors had political, professional ties to Michalek]

Max, 64, has faced recent health problems stemming from strokes and was not personally responsible for what Romano called “technicalities at best.”

“The errors were brought to his attention,” Romano said, indicating two other treasurers of the political action committee who are now deceased were guiding its affairs at various times.

Romano issued a statement indicating his client (treasurer of the Progressive Democrats) “took responsibility for his political club’s poor bookkeeping practices.”

“All club funds were accounted for and used properly under the New York State Election Law, but there were bookkeeping errors and omissions,” Romano said. “Because of Frank’s recent health issues and an interest to spend time with his family, Frank accepted responsibility for the club’s paperwork issues and declined to challenge the charges.

“In fact, he is fully cooperating with law enforcement,” he added. “It is anticipated he will be sentenced to a conditional discharge in connection with this matter. Frank looks forward to closing the political club, putting this matter behind him, and focusing on his future.”

[Related: Steven Pigeon’s groups have poured $5.2 million into elections since 2001]

The violations stemmed from an investigation that said Max never truthfully disclosed the financial activity of the Progressive Democrats of Western New York, a political action committee he founded and controlled for many years.

Schneiderman and Risa Sugarman, chief enforcement counsel for the state Board of Elections, explained that Max admitted to the election law charges – which are relatively minor.

They said Max falsely claimed that donations to his Progressive Democrats of Western New York of over $99, which should have been itemized, were less than $99, circumventing reporting requirements.

In addition, a $900 donation was reported as $400.

Sugarman also said corporate donations were not properly reported, noting corporations are subject to strict limitations on the amount of total annual contributions to political candidates.

“Campaign finance disclosure ensures New Yorkers have confidence and transparency in the electoral process,” Sugarman said. “The public has the right to know who contributes to political committees and how the money is spent. We will continue to work together with our law enforcement partners, including the attorney general, to assure New Yorkers that violations of the public trust do not go unpunished.”

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