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Steven Pigeon's bribery admission came after years of fighting charges

G. Steven Pigeon, a once-powerful upstate New York political operative and former Erie County Democratic chairman, has a reputation as a fighter – for candidates he wanted to see get elected and against those who would stand in his way.

But trying to fight three prosecutions was apparently too much for him, according to his defense attorney.

Pigeon put an end to two of the legal cases Friday morning by admitting he bribed a state judge. He pleaded guilty to a felony charge of third-degree bribery, one of the nine counts he faced in a June 2016 criminal indictment.

"Steve Pigeon orchestrated a brazen, multiyear scheme to bribe a sitting judge – demonstrating flagrant contempt for the rule of law and the interests of New Yorkers," state Attorney General Barbara Underwood said. "Now, he’s being brought to justice."

State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr., who accepted Pigeon’s plea, agreed to give Pigeon no more than a year in jail when he’s sentenced Dec. 21 as part of a plea deal.

“The combination of three separate prosecutions and the machinations that are involved in going through that – three separate events, the mental-physical commitment, the financial commitment and so on – obviously had a lot to do with what we ultimately have done,” said Paul J. Cambria Jr., Pigeon’s attorney.

Pigeon declined comment outside the courtroom. Minutes earlier inside the courtroom, he admitted to:

• Trying to help then-State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek get jobs for two family members.

• Trying to help Michalek get an appointment as an appellate judge.

Steven Pigeon pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday, after pleading guilty to state charges in State Supreme Court earlier this month. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

• Giving Michalek and a family member two free tickets to box seats to Buffalo Sabres games.

• Giving a Michalek family member a free ticket to a $1,000 political fundraiser.

What Pigeon admitted getting from Michalek was information about various lawsuits, including nonpublic information. Pigeon gave the judge advice on cases and had the judge appoint an attorney of his choice as a receiver in a foreclosure case, even though the attorney was not on the court’s list of qualified receivers, according to prosecutors.

The time frame for the bribery scheme was approximately February 2012 to about April 2015, prosecutors said.

Cambria said he plans to ask Cerio to sentence Pigeon to no jail time, which the attorney said would be “absolutely appropriate.” Cambria also said that he was "satisfied" with the outcome for his client. Cambria noted that although the crime is a felony, the penalty was set at a misdemeanor level.

Pigeon, who waived his right to appeal as part of the plea agreement, remained free on $10,000 bail. He is expected to lose his law license because of the plea.

The case began under former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the prosecution was continued by the office of state Attorney General Barbara Underwood.

“We have zero tolerance for public corruption," Underwood said in a statement issued after the plea. "New Yorkers deserve to be able to trust the integrity of their officials – and my office will continue to do everything in our power to hold accountable those who violate that trust.”

Pigeon still faces federal charges that mirror the state's case: one count of conspiracy to commit bribery and honest services wire fraud, three counts of honest services wire fraud, one count of federal programs bribery and three counts of violation of the Travel Act.

Pigeon was separately indicted in December of violating state election laws, but prosecutors said his plea Friday satisfies those charges. The AG's office is continuing to prosecute his two co-defendants in the case, Kristy Mazurek and David Pfaff.

Pigeon provided an affidavit to prosecutors regarding the state election law case, which was submitted to the judge and ordered sealed.

Email evidence seized during a raid of Pigeon's waterfront condo in 2015 showed Michalek repeatedly asked for Pigeon’s help in gaining a government job for a relative and even for Pigeon to wield his influence in assisting his application for a gubernatorial appointment to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. Prosecutors said Pigeon engaged in "ex parte communciations" with Michalek about lawsuits pending before the judge in which Pigeon had an interest.

Michalek resigned in June 2016 from his $193,000-a-year job and pleaded guilty to a felony bribery charge and offering a false instrument for filing. He had also agreed to become a state witness against Pigeon and is still awaiting sentencing.

The state case against Pigeon, 58, originally took shape on complaints of election law violations, but the resulting charges relate to more serious charges involving the judicial bribery.

Pigeon was scheduled to go to trial Oct. 15, following a rejection of his motion to suppress the evidence seized from his condo. Cambria waged a complex legal battle for more than a year seeking to deny admission of the emails into the case, contending they were illegally obtained.

In June 2016, Pigeon was indicted on nine charges including two counts of bribery, six counts of rewarding official misconduct and one count of grand larceny, for the alleged extortion. Had he been convicted of all of the charges, he could have faced up to 15 years behind bars.

At the time Pigeon was indicted, Cambria said his client rejected a plea deal offered by prosecutors.

"There was such an offer made," Cambria said, "but it was not even considered seriously."

The genesis of the case lies with complaints filed by former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha and Erie County Legislators Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues, both Buffalo Democrats. Sacha, Grant and Hogues complained to the Erie County Board of Elections over how the Pigeon-connected WNY Progressive Caucus raised $267,000 in 2013 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Party headquarters.

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