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State releases emails showing Pigeon, others alerted to publicly posted jobs

ALBANY – As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s point person for economic development in the region, Sam Hoyt is charged with growing private sector job opportunities throughout Western New York.

In 2013, it appears he also had an additional task: letting Steve Pigeon, the longtime Democratic operative, know about job openings in state government.

The jobs weren’t for Pigeon, who, at the time, was a local player on Cuomo's behalf – before state and federal felony corruption charges were brought against him in the past two years. At the time, Hoyt was turning over state job leads to him.

In one email, Hoyt wrote to Pigeon on Nov. 2, 2013: “Here is a good one. Let’s find names from a few town chairs we need to cultivate.’’

The governor's office noted that the jobs information given to Pigeon and nearly two dozen others also was available to the public on state web sites.

The emails were among documents recently released to The Buffalo News under a Freedom of Information Law request filed more than a year ago.

The small batch of documents that Empire State Development sent to The News represents its “partial response” to the newspaper's FOIL request. The partial response came July 14, one year to the day that The News requested all records about or between Pigeon and officials at the economic development agency.

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The “partial response” a week ago came after Joseph Giglia, The News’ general counsel, wrote agency officials that they had “simply unreasonably delayed its obligation” to respond to the newspaper's July 2016 request for documents. Giglia said the newspaper had considered the letters from Empire State Development over the past year stating that it needed more time to look for the records to amount to a “constructive denial.”

In his May 12 letter, Giglia said the newspaper was moving to an appeals process of that denial and that the agency should put its denial reasons in writing so the newspaper “may promptly proceed” to state court to challenge the agency’s actions.

A FOIL request similar to the one submitted to ESD also was sent at the same time last year to Cuomo’s office, requesting records pertaining to Pigeon and contacts with senior officials in the Cuomo administration. The governor's staff responded a month later – in August 2016 – that no such documents existed.

Strange bedfellows

Before their connection to Cuomo, Hoyt and Pigeon weren't exactly friendly. Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic Party chairman, had worked hard to try to defeat Hoyt during Hoyt's last two campaigns for his Assembly seat. Pigeon also had once called Hoyt a “phony.’’

For his part, Hoyt over the years called Pigeon “a discredited and disgraced political hack.’’

But by 2013, Hoyt had been hired by Cuomo. And Pigeon, earlier in 2013,  donated $50,000 to Cuomo’s campaign committee.  In 2002, Pigeon had been an early supporter of Cuomo’s first gubernatorial bid, which eventually failed.

In his role at Empire State Development, Hoyt provided a list of 22 individuals in the Buffalo area who the former Assembly member communicates with about state jobs. The list included current and former members of the state Legislature, Buffalo’s Common Council, local town boards, and leaders of religious, community and other groups.

“Sam Hoyt is a regional representative who routinely informs dozens of ‎contacts in the region – including elected officials from both parties, prominent community leaders and professional recruiters – of openings in order to expand the pool of potential applicants,’’ an agency spokesman said in a written statement.”

Other emails

Among the emails released to The News was an exchange that started with Hoyt sending an email to unknown recipients about seasonal openings at the state Transportation Department.

“What is a CDL,’’ Pigeon wrote Hoyt of a job requirement for the openings.

“Commercial driver’s license,’’ Hoyt responded 12 minutes later.

A couple of weeks later, job openings were again the subject.

“There are a couple of these positions open locally. Note qualifications,’’ Hoyt wrote to Pigeon of openings for a job title called “revenue crimes specialist.’’ The jobs, apparently at the state tax department, included doing undercover work, working with prosecutors, developing confidential informants and running field investigations, including surveillance operations.

Some jobs were based in Western New York while others were elsewhere across the state, such as alcohol and substance abuse treatment counselors in Greene County, tax clerks in Albany County and groundskeepers in Queens. Pigeon was told about jobs for research scientists at the state Health Department in Albany and for a “business and project development” official at the New York Power Authority in Lewiston.

It was not clear who got the jobs that Hoyt notified Pigeon about, or whether Pigeon sought to play any role in helping anyone get the positions.

In one email to Pigeon, Hoyt urged: "Steve: please use personal addresses.'' An Empire State Development spokesman said the request, in that case, was appropriate because the two men were engaged in exchanges about politics, not government business.

In another email sent in October 2013,  Hoyt wrote to an unknown recipient – the name was redacted on the document – with the subject line: “FW: Pigeon article has been posted.’’ That was in reference to a lengthy Buffalo News article about an increasingly larger role Pigeon had been given on Cuomo’s behalf in Western New York.

A few months after those exchanges, Pigeon was helping to arrange a $25,000 donation to Cuomo’s campaign that originally had begun with a Montreal-based gambling company executive but ended up coming from a Florida lawyer connected to the company. The transaction was meant to hide an illegal contribution from a foreign national, according to federal prosecutors who charged Pigeon with a felony over the matter in May.

That case is separate from state charges previously brought against Pigeon by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who in June 2016 and in a new case in April accused Pigeon of bribery, extortion and election law violations. Pigeon has denied any wrongdoing and accused prosecutors of having political motives for bringing the charges.

Document release delays

A week after the Buffalo News FOIL request in July 2016, the state development agency responded that it had received the email. But over 10 subsequent months, the agency sent a series of similar notices to the newspaper.

“Please be advised that we are still processing the attached FOIL request,’’ it said last August.

Five more times, the agency gave the same kind of update, until the News’ Giglia wrote his letter to the agency in May characterizing the responses as nothing more than “cut-and-paste” denials.

“These collective responses for the last 10 months, with nothing more, are a constructive denial to the request and antagonistic to the intent of FOIL and advisory opinions,’’ he wrote.

In its partial response, the agency informed The News that it hoped to provide a further update on or about Aug. 14.

Asked about the year it has taken to get the release of even a partial list of documents, an agency spokesman pointed to the hundreds of FOIL requests received each year that are handled by ESD’s two records-access officers.

“They are processed in the order they were received, many of which are quite voluminous in nature and all require a full legal review,’’ Jason Conwall said.

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