And another one goes down.
G. Steven Pigeon, former Erie County Democratic chairman and a political operative with influence in both Democratic and Republican circles, pleaded guilty Friday to a felony count of bribery. He could spend up to one year in jail.
But there is a critical — and encouraging — distinction between this conviction and those of former gubernatorial aide Joseph Percoco, Buffalo developer Louis Ciminelli and others: This time, it was state prosecutors overseeing a corruption case in a state court.
To date, most other high-profile cases have required the efforts of federal prosecutors and federal judges. This time, the state showed a healthy and heartening interest in cleaning up the corruption that is endemic to New York. And it is all to the good, and no slight to New York, that a federal case is also pending against Pigeon.
His crime was deplorable. In court Friday, Pigeon admitted bribing John A. Michalek, then a state Supreme Court justice. Michalek pleaded guilty two years ago to a felony bribery charge and offering a false instrument for filing. He agreed to become a witness against Pigeon. Michalek has yet to be sentenced. Pigeon’s sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 21.
In his plea, Pigeon admitted helping Michalek get an appointment to the court’s Appellate Division. He also helped two of Michalek’s family members get jobs, provided a comped $1,000 ticket to a political fundraiser and box seat tickets to two Sabres games to Michalek. Pigeon also got the judge to appoint one of Pigeon’s associates as a receiver in a foreclosure case.
One hand washes the other. Too often, that’s how government and politics work in the corrupt State of New York. And, plainly, Pigeon thought he could get away with it. Because that, too, is how government and politics have worked in New York.
The case was initiated by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman based on complaints of election law violations. But it concluded under Schneiderman’s successor, Barbara Underwood, as a case involving judicial bribery.
New Yorkers now have to hope — and insist — that state and local law enforcement officials do more than they have to root out the corruption in government. It’s not sufficient to rely on the commitment of federal prosecutors, such as former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office launched the criminal cases that eventually took down former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos.
For that reason, whoever is elected attorney general in November needs to be committed to following the evidence of corruption wherever it leads them. That requires independence and firmness of intent. It means bucking the system that may have helped put him or her in office. Voters should plan to evaluate both candidates on that score. New York will not change until those who would abuse power decide it’s too risky.
In the meantime, voters who care about honesty in government can take heart in Pigeon’s undoing. The state took an active interest and followed up until it nailed him. It counts as a good start.