Marc Panepinto appeared before a federal magistrate judge in downtown Buffalo Thursday, immediately following a guy in prison stripes accused of selling drugs.
The former state senator was instructed to raise his right hand, and then asked if he swears to tell the truth.
“I do,” he replied.
Panepinto, 53, was under no such obligation back on March 15, 2016. That’s when, after just 15 months in office, he summoned reporters inside his law office to announce he would not run again. This after muscling his way past other Democrats for the party endorsement, gaining boatloads of money from teacher unions and earning his “Landslide Panepinto” reputation in a 2014 victory over three opponents with 34 percent of the vote.
On that cold March afternoon, the senator was not asked to swear an oath to tell the truth. Instead, he denied he was under investigation by state ethics officials. He also singled out his terminally ill law partner standing in the room and said he wanted to remain with their practice for his sake.
“It’s the best decision for my family, my law partners and the party,” he said then, answering only four questions before he hustled with his family and staff into the inner recesses of the Delaware Avenue mansion.
But before Magistrate Judge Michael Roemer Thursday afternoon, the former senator was forced to answer questions. He admitted making unwanted advances to a young female staff member during a trip to New York City in January 2016. He also admitted a senior staffer in his office offered “employment or compensation” to the young woman if she would not cooperate with state ethics investigators.
Panepinto also did not contest the government’s contention that he traveled to New York with the staffer on Jan. 7, 2016, to raise funds – presumably for re-election. He did not contest that he made unwanted physical and sexual advances, that the woman rebuffed him, that he asked her to “crack” his back or that he even suggested her “feet smelled sexy.”
None of that was relevant, he deemed, when he refused to answer questions asked on behalf of his 60th Senate District constituents at the mansion press conference.
Back in 2014, Erie County Democrats appeared excited about supporting Hamburg Trustee Laura Palisano Hackathorn for the Senate. But they yielded when Panepinto hinted at the union money he could bring to the race. Indeed, more than $3 million was spent on the 60th District that year, with more than $1 million from the New York State United Teachers entities.
The party also caved to Panepinto despite his 2001 misdemeanor conviction for collecting fraudulent voter signatures on designating petitions.
“It was a lapse in judgment,” he said in 2014. “Since that time I’ve been a pretty successful lawyer, and that did not impede my legal career in any way.”
Since Panepinto left the Senate in 2016, by the way, a Republican has held the seat.
Panepinto always sought to be a “player” in local and state politics. At one time, sources said, he yearned to serve as county Democratic chairman. Eventually he charged past everyone else to run for the Senate, serving just past his first anniversary and leaving via an exit press conference that raised more questions than it answered.
Now, his tenure in Albany will be recorded only as a footnote. Like others in that town, he will be remembered for attempting to take advantage of a young woman in his employ. In a hotel room in New York City, no less.
The unidentified staffer, by contrast, will be remembered for having the integrity to rebuff him, the smarts to reject his offer of compensation for keeping quiet, and for the courage to cooperate with investigators.
Back in 2016, Panepinto spoke one truthful sentence when he deigned to answer a reporter’s question about details of his unexpected departure.
He said then he was “not able to talk” about personnel matters.
“That has to play itself out,” he said.
On Thursday in a downtown court room, it finally did.