ALBANY – After pleading guilty for making unwanted sexual advances toward a staff member and then trying to cover up his actions, former state Sen. Marc Panepinto has entered into a settlement agreement with two state ethics agencies that includes payment of a $10,000 fine.
Panepinto, a freshman senator from Buffalo, in 2016 sought to promise money or a job to his female victim if she stayed quiet about his sexual advances in a Manhattan hotel. After pleading guilty last summer following an investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo, Panepinto was recently sentenced to two months in jail.
The new settlement was reached between Panepinto, a lawyer in private practice, and the Joint Commission on Public Ethics and the Legislative Ethics Commission. Besides the $10,000 fine, Panepinto admitted he violated the state Public Officers Law for making the unwanted sexual advances and then trying to obstruct a state probe into his behavior by offering the female victim a job or money if she did not cooperate with the state investigation.
Panepinto, whose signature appears on the settlement agreement that was dated Jan. 15, could not immediately be reached for comment.
But last June, after pleading guilty, he said: "I certainly understand that my actions were not appropriate and that they had hurtful consequences. For that, I am truly sorry."
The initial investigation of Panepinto was launched by the Legislative Ethics Commission, a panel composed of members of the Senate and Assembly. The Senate had done an internal probe after the woman resigned from Panepinto’s office.
The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, received the legislative panel’s report and was investigating Panepinto; it halted the probe at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which was conducting its own criminal investigation into the matter. Panepinto in March 2016, just 15 months into his first term, surprised party leaders and lawmakers in Albany when he suddenly announced he would not run for re-election that fall for personal and professional reasons. He talked of his law firm partner’s fight with cancer and the need to spend more time on his law practice work.
Two months earlier, as it turned out, Panepinto was in Manhattan for a fundraiser for his Senate campaign. That night – January 7 – Panepinto suggested to his Senate staffer that they go to his hotel room to count the money the fundraiser brought in, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul E. Bonanno last year when Panepinto pleaded guilty.
"The defendant laid his head on the staff members's lap," Bonanno told U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer. "He pulled her feet to his face and said, 'They smell sexy.'"
The staff member asked him to leave. Still later in the evening, he texted her: "I'm wide awake and not tired at all."
The U.S. Attorney’s office said Panepinto used a senior member of his Senate staff to reach out to the victim to offer a job or money if she kept quiet to JCOPE investigators. The FBI investigated the matter, as well.
A five-page settlement agreement released Thursday by JCOPE notes that the Legislative Ethics Commission referred the Panepinto matter over to JCOPE on March 4, just two weeks before Panepinto announced his intentions to not seek a second term. On March 31, JCOPE wrote to Panepinto to inform him of the allegations against him; Panepinto responded on April 20 and denied the claims.
A month later, the JCOPE board formally approved an investigation into the allegations against the then-senator, a probe halted at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s Office so it could finish its own investigation.
Last June, Panepinto pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor: “Promise of employment, compensation or other benefit for political activity.’’
The settlement deal states that Panepinto waived his right to appear in an adjudicatory hearing on the matter. Panepinto agreed to pay the $10,000 fine within 30 days. His federal guilty plea last year also carried a $9,500 fine.
Panepinto also agreed not to make any public statements denying – “directly or indirectly” – any of the findings in the settlement agreement with the two ethics panels.
Panepinto, federal prosecutors said, made several advances on the female staffer in the hotel room. When she asked him to leave the room, the then-senator asked her to first “crack” his back.
Panepinto was elected to the Senate in 2014 after defeating Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti.
When sentenced in December, Panepinto’s lawyer sought to characterize the incident between the senator and staffer as an aberration and that Panepinto had panicked when he sought to silence the woman.
"He should have known better," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael J. Roemer said in December in sentencing the ex-senator to two months in prison. "He took advantage of his status and power."