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Former state senator admits to cover-up of unwanted advances to female staffer

Two years ago, Buffalo Democrat Marc Panepinto shocked party leaders by announcing his sudden departure from the State Senate.

The announcement came 15 months into Panepinto's first term and just weeks after Democratic leaders endorsed his re-election.

On Thursday, the reasons for Panepinto's surprising decision became clear.

The former state lawmaker, as part of a plea deal, admitted making unwanted advances toward a female Senate staff member and then promising her money or a job if she helped him cover up his actions.

Panepinto acknowledged his conduct inside the staffer's New York City hotel room on Jan. 7, 2016, and his efforts to convince her not to cooperate with the state investigation that resulted from the incident.

"I certainly understand that my actions were not appropriate and that they had hurtful consequences," he said in a statement Thursday. "For that, I am truly sorry."

During Panepinto's federal court appearance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul E. Bonanno detailed his conduct on that January night two years ago, the same night as a re-election fundraiser in New York City.

Panepinto, according to the government, suggested he and the staff member adjourn to her hotel room to count the money raised that night and then, once inside the room, made unwanted sexual advances, both verbal and physical.

"The defendant laid his head on the staff members's lap," Bonanno told U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer. "He pulled her feet to his face and said, 'They smell sexy.'"

Later, after the staff member had asked him to leave, Panepinto texted her a message that said, "I'm wide awake and not tired at all."

The plea agreement also spells out Panepinto's efforts to cover up what happened that night, including his use of a senior staff member who eventually offered the young woman money or a job if she kept quiet.

"The senior staff member promised a financial payment or future employment if the staff member failed to cooperate with in the JCOPE investigation," Bonanno said Thursday.

JCOPE is an acronym for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state commission that investigated Panepinto before he left office in December of 2016.

Bonanno did not name the female staff member but indicated that she worked in Panepinto's Buffalo office and, on that night two years ago, repeatedly rejected her boss' sexual advances.

At one point, when the woman asked Panepinto to leave her room, he asked her to first "crack" his back. And after he finally agreed to leave, he acknowledged returning to the woman's room in an unsuccessful attempt to get back inside.

Bonanno said the woman eventually resigned from Panepinto's staff,  and that the Senate, after conducting its own investigation, referred the matter to JCOPE. The matter was dropped when Panepinto left the Legislature.

In the months since his departure, the FBI began its own investigation and, on Thursday, the results of that investigation became evident.

"While the defendant's behavior in the hotel room was bad, his efforts to cover up that behavior constituted a federal crime," U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said in a statement Thursday. "In behaving as he did, the defendant not only abused the trust of a young female staffer over whom he held a position of authority, he also betrayed the trust of the people he was elected to serve."

Now a lawyer in private practice, Panepinto will face a recommended sentence of up to six months in prison because of his misdemeanor conviction. He pleaded guilty to making  a promise of employment or compensation for political activity.

Panepinto's guilty plea came more than a year after he left the Senate amid the JCOPE investigation and questions about changes on his staff.

"The defendant was concerned the JCOPE investigation would jeopardize his re-election to the New York State Senate," Bonanno said Thursday.

His decision to leave, which he announced in March 2016, came in the middle of his first term in office and only weeks after the Erie County Democratic Committee endorsed him for re-election.

"It's the best decision for my family, my law partners and the party," he said during a news conference at his Delaware Avenue law office at the time.

Panepinto's announcement also came two days before The Buffalo News revealed the state investigation into his Senate office.

Panepinto, who is married to State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto, and his attorney, Herbert L. Greenman, declined to comment Thursday.

In his statement, Panepinto thanked his family for their support and indicated he took the plea deal so people affected by his actions could "move on."

Elected in 2014, Panepinto defeated incumbent Mark J. Grisanti to win the 60th Senate District seat.

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