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Panepinto gets 2 months in prison for bid to cover up sexual advances

In the end, it was the cover-up that ensnared former State Sen. Marc Panepinto.

Yes, the Buffalo Democrat made unwanted advances toward a female staff member, but it was his offer of a job or money to keep her quiet that led to his criminal conviction.

On Friday, he learned his punishment – two months in prison.

"He should have known better," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer in explaining why he rejected Panepinto's request for a non-jail sentence. "He took advantage of his status and power."

Panepinto's sentence, the result of a misdemeanor conviction, came more than two years after his sudden, unexplained departure from the Senate. He stepped down 15 months into his first term and just weeks after Erie County Democrats endorsed him for re-election.

At the time, only a few people knew about the woman, a member of Panepinto's Senate staff, and her allegations of unwanted sexual advances, both verbal and physical.

Later, as part of a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney's office, he acknowledged his conduct inside the staffer's New York City hotel room in January 2016, and his efforts to convince her not to cooperate with the state investigation that followed.

"He offered this illegal quid pro quo as a sitting senator," Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul E. Bonanno said Friday. "He tried to bribe her not to testify."

Bonanno said the victim, who remains anonymous, has moved out of state and, in large part because of what happened to her on the night of Panepinto's New York City fundraiser, is working in a job unrelated to politics.

The prosecutor also questioned Panepinto's remorse and noted that he recently referred to his conduct that night as a "foot rub."

"He still doesn't fully appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct," Bonanno told Roemer.

Panepinto, according to Bonanno, suggested he and the staff member move to her hotel room to count the money raised that night. Once inside, he made several advances, only to face rejection.

When the woman finally asked him to leave, Panepinto asked her to first "crack" his back. He also acknowledged returning to the woman's room in an unsuccessful attempt to get back inside and texting her a message that said, "I'm wide awake and not tired at all."

Panepinto addressed the court at one point Friday and indicated he wished he could apologize in person to his former staff member.

"I'm deeply sorry," he said in speaking to the victim. "I read your letter to the court, and I was devastated by the impact my conduct has had on you."

The former lawmaker also made references to his three daughters and said, "I'm embarrassed and I'm ashamed of my conduct."

A few minutes later, while talking about the victim, Roemer made his own reference to daughters.

"Every woman is someone's daughter who should be treated with respect and dignity," he said.

Panepinto's defense lawyer described his client's behavior that night in 2016 as aberrational and pointed to the more than 75 letters of support, many of them from women disappointed in him but nonetheless supportive.

He also tried to explain 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.

"He panicked," said Herbert L. Greenman of the offer. "He did it to cover up what he had done."

The Senate looked into the former staff member's allegations and referred the matter to the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which opened its own investigation into Panepinto.

The Buffalo News revealed the investigation in a story that ran one day after Panepinto resigned. The investigation was dropped when he left office.

In the months following his departure, the FBI opened its own investigation and that led to the criminal prosecution against him. He eventually pleaded guilty to making a promise of employment or compensation for political activity.

“The defendant essentially sought to purchase this young woman’s silence,” U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. said in a statement. “His abuse of power cost him his office and bought him a federal criminal conviction.”   

Gary Loeffert, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo, said Panepinto's sentence is a reminder of why it's important to root out public corruption.

“Panepinto's admitted criminal misconduct - behavior that he engaged in while he served in public office - is not acceptable,” Loeffert said.

Now a lawyer in private practice, Panepinto is married to State Supreme Court Justice Catherine Nugent Panepinto.

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