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Pigeon case marks fifth anniversary with no sentence as political probes continue

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G. Steven Pigeon.

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On May 28, 2015, state and federal agents with search warrants in hand raided the homes of political operative G. Steven Pigeon and two others, seizing reams of materials as they eyed future prosecutions.

But five years later, the case remains far from settled. Pigeon eventually pleaded guilty to state and federal charges that could put him in jail for a year, but his sentencing continues to be postponed in U.S. District Court in Buffalo. Sources close to the former Erie County Democratic chairman say he now lives in Florida and makes occasional trips back to Western New York. He forfeited his law license as part of a plea agreement.

Another central figure in the case, former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek, also remains free after pleading guilty to charges stemming from the 2015 raids.

Those who originally complained about Pigeon's illegal fundraising with a shadowy committee called the WNY Progressive Caucus question why he remains free. Mark A. Sacha, a former prosecutor who is now a defense attorney, touched off a series of investigations by the State Attorney General's Office and the FBI with his 2013 complaint to the Erie County Board of Elections.

Sacha can identify few other cases in which a defendant who admitted guilt avoided sentencing for so long – "especially a plea to bribing a judge."

"At a time when people question political influence on the court system, it's outrageous he has not even been sentenced," he said. "Anyone on any side of the political spectrum should want resolution."

Sacha's co-plaintiff in the original case, former Erie County Legislature Chairwoman Betty Jean Grant, says the delayed outcome leaves her "disenchanted" with a system she thought would deliver justice.

"Five years is a long time," Grant said. "If he's guilty, let him serve his time. If he's not guilty, take away this criminal cloud from around him. But let's be done."

The U.S. Attorney's Office did not respond to a request for comment. The State Attorney General's Office declined to comment.

By his own admission, Pigeon is guilty – though his admissions are also ripening with age. In September 2018, he acknowledged in State Supreme Court that he bribed Michalek. The veteran judge resigned after pleading guilty in June 2017, and he awaits his own sentencing in the case. Sources say Michalek's sentencing will follow disposition of the Pigeon case.

In October 2018, Pigeon acknowledged in federal court that he conspired to make an illegal political donation to the 2014 re-election campaign of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. Neither the governor nor his campaign were ever implicated in the case.

But sentencing has been delayed several times in both courts, and Pigeon, 59, is not slated to appear again in a federal courtroom until October. The federal court is expected to act ahead of the state court.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors observing the cases have long concluded the delays stem from Pigeon's cooperation with authorities in a case that continues to unfold, including related raids on the Grassroots political club in 2017 and in City Hall offices last November.

Indeed, two sources told The Buffalo News in 2019 that the longtime confidante of top New York Democrats was sharing his knowledge with law enforcement in a bid to reduce or even eliminate jail time.

One local attorney familiar with prosecution and defense tactics, who asked not to be identified, called such a delay "a rare exception."

"The more he works, the more he and the government at the time of sentencing can say he is entitled to less jail time," the attorney said. "Whatever role he is playing, it's abundantly clear with the continued deferment of final sentencing, that he is now truly a government asset whom they control."

Another veteran attorney who also asked not to be identified says cooperation remains the only explanation for the long delays.

"You may have a defendant figuring he may have to continue coming up with even more information to get more benefits," the attorney said.

Pigeon lawyer Paul J. Cambria has never acknowledged that his client is cooperating with anyone. He said delays are possible as the courts prioritize cases involving defendants in custody, while the Covid-19 pandemic creates a major backlog.

But he acknowledged any case dragging on for five years can exact a toll, even on someone admitting to a crime.

"Steve getting on with his life is part of it," Cambria said. "But I don't really think the delay will have a negative impact at all on whatever his ultimate sentence will be."

The homes of two others – former Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and political consultant Christopher M. Grant – were also raided that May morning. Authorities never charged either.

Thomas J. Eoannou, Grant's attorney, said a five-year delay "is not the norm, but it is not as rare as you would think." He added that "benefits" may await anyone charged as well as agencies pressing charges.

He noted that Grant, a one-time aide to former Rep. Chris Collins who now consults for political candidates around the country, had been involved in advertising for some of the political campaigns under investigation.

"Chris was never going to be charged because he did absolutely nothing wrong," Eoannou said. "The search warrants were unnecessary in the first place because he would have invited them in."

The attorney acknowledged that authorities involved in the raid five years ago never said anything more and an unnecessary "stigma" resulted, despite his client's "100% cooperation."

"No one ever hears the final chapter," he said. "And there should be zero stigma attached to the execution of that warrant."

Casey's attorney, Rodney O. Personius, did not return a call seeking comment.

The Buffalo News has previously reported that the former top aide to Mayor Byron W. Brown also cooperated with authorities.

In 2018, Pigeon admitted to bribing Michalek in 2017, while related charges of election law violations were dropped. He said he used his influence to help Michalek seek an appointment to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court; tried to help Michalek get jobs for two family members; provided him a $1,000 ticket to a political fundraiser and box seat tickets to two Buffalo Sabres games; and persuaded the judge to appoint an associate as receiver in a foreclosure case.

Federal prosecutors also originally charged Pigeon with conspiracy, wire fraud and bribery. In October 2018, he admitted to conspiring to making an illegal political donation.

The $25,000 transaction – eventually "donated," according to the Cuomo campaign – occurred during the governor'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.

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Related to this story

The former legislator told The News that he heard allegations from an investigator that he was "never meant to win" a 2012 election for a NY Senate seat and that his decades-long friends – Steve Casey, then the deputy mayor to Byron W. Brown, and political operative G. Steven Pigeon – had coordinated with the incumbent Mark Grisanti to set up Swanick as a spoiler.

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