When political operative G. Steven Pigeon admitted committing felony crimes before two judges last year, he acknowledged the risk of spending as much as 16 months in prison.
His guilty pleas then prompted obvious questions: Is Pigeon cooperating with prosecutors investigating public corruption? And where could that lead?
Now, two sources close to the case say the longtime ally and confidant of top Democrats around New York State is sharing his knowledge with law enforcement in a bid to reduce or even eliminate jail time. Though the value of his information remains unclear, one of the sources says the former Erie County Democratic chairman is answering questions about several ongoing investigations, as well as providing an inside look at much of the state’s Democratic establishment.
“I don’t know how much he is cooperating, but he is cooperating,” a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case told The Buffalo News. The source added that time will tell how helpful Pigeon is and how effective his cooperation will be.
Another source confirmed that Pigeon has cooperated since soon after he pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court to bribing a judge, and in U.S. District Court to arranging an illegal contribution to the campaign of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (who was not implicated in the case).
“They’re asking about a bunch of stuff,” said the second source, who does not believe that Pigeon has provided a “smoking gun” about any New York politicians.
Still, political observers note that Pigeon shares his insider knowledge with investigators following more than 30 years of working on campaigns, raising money and orchestrating candidacies. Over the years he has developed relationships with some of the top names in state politics including Bill and Hillary Clinton, billionaire B. Thomas Golisano, Mayor Byron W. Brown and Cuomo.
U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy Jr. would offer no comment on whether Pigeon was cooperating after obtaining the guilty plea in October. He also would not comment again on Monday.
Likewise, no indication of cooperation accompanied Pigeon’s September guilty plea in State Supreme Court, and a spokeswoman for State Attorney General Letitia A. James would offer no comment last week.
Pigeon defense attorney Paul J. Cambria also would not comment.
“I don’t comment on anonymous rumors,” he said.
Nevertheless, veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys alike say all signs point to Pigeon’s cooperation with law enforcement. They note his sentencing date has been postponed in state and federal courts on several occasions, consistent with what normally occurs when a defendant is providing information.
Sentencing for former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to accepting bribes offered by Pigeon, has also been postponed several times. He was slated to learn his fate before State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr. last Thursday, but prosecutors say it has been postponed to an unspecified date.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys alike who are not connected with the Pigeon case, but who are familiar with similar situations, say it only makes sense the admitted felon is talking. Without cooperation, they say, he would almost certainly face jail time.
“It’s normal to see sentences based on cooperation or some type of interaction with law enforcement. It happens all the time,” said former U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn. “Sentencing guidelines allow for adjustment in sentencing if the defendant honestly cooperates.
“You could see a scenario in which something potentially like that is going on."
Flynn also said sentencing delays often result if law enforcement and prosecutors believe the information they obtain is helpful, and will continue until they feel they are done.
“It’s logical for you to conclude that there is a potential for cooperation,” Flynn said.
Veteran defense attorneys steeped in the ways of law enforcement also point to continued sentencing delays and Pigeon’s obvious desire to avoid prison as signs of cooperation.
“I have no knowledge as to whether he’s cooperating or not,” said Daniel C. Oliverio, a former federal prosecutor and current white collar criminal defense lawyer. “However, he has extremely competent counsel in Mr. Cambria and I’m sure they’re weighing the benefits of helping the government.”
Martin Littlefield, another former prosecutor who teaches criminal justice at SUNY Buffalo State, said white collar criminals are often slow to accept their guilt, but in the end, realize they have to cooperate to avoid prison.
“If he is cooperating, I wouldn’t be surprised at all,” he said.
Littlefield said the prospect of prison can be a motivating factor for even the most reluctant defendant.
“Why do people get religion?” he said. “It could be the death of a family member or it could be the prospect of going to jail. Is the shock of jail a wake-up call? It probably is.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo originally charged Pigeon last year with conspiracy, wire fraud and bribery. But in October, he appeared before U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara and instead admitted to conspiring to make an illegal political donation.
The $25,000 contribution was made during Cuomo’s 2014 re-election effort on behalf of the Canadian founder of an online gambling business. Under federal law, foreign nationals are prohibited from making donations to U.S. political campaigns.
Pigeon, 58, admitted scheming to hide the identify of donor David Baazov, the founder and CEO of Amaya Gaming Group in Montreal. Investigators said the illegal contribution allowed Pigeon and Baazov to attend a 2014 fundraiser for Cuomo in New York City. The governor’s campaign noted last fall it initially rejected the Pigeon-arranged contribution because of its foreign origin.
“As the facts demonstrate, our campaign was defrauded by Mr. Pigeon’s illegal actions,” Cuomo campaign spokeswoman Abbey Collins said in October. “The contribution in question will be immediately donated and we trust the court will handle Mr. Pigeon accordingly.”
But the Pigeon plea occurred in the midst of last year’s gubernatorial campaign and served as fodder for Marc Molinaro, Cuomo’s unsuccessful Republican opponent.
“The finger is now pointed directly at this governor, and he needs to answer questions about the clear laundering of $25,000 in illegal foreign money to his campaign,” Molinaro said then.
Two weeks earlier in September in state court, Pigeon admitted to Cerio that he bribed Michalek in 2017, while related charges of election law violations were dropped.
Pigeon admitted using his influence to help Michalek try to get an appointment to the court’s Appellate Division; trying to help Michalek get jobs for two of his family members; providing a $1,000 ticket to a political fundraiser and box seat tickets to two Buffalo Sabres games to Michalek; and that he persuaded the judge to appoint a Pigeon associate as receiver in a foreclosure case.
News reporter Dan Herbeck contributed to this story.