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Why Pigeon Matters

A year ago, the author asked law enforcement officials to investigate Steve Pigeon’s campaign finance dealings. Now he explains why it’s important to do so.

In 2008, I publicly complained about Tom Golisano, Steve Pigeon, and Responsible New York illegally coordinating with individual political campaigns. I remain convinced that the felony of coordination did occur, though no DA has formally taken up the case yet. I will continue to write and complain until something definitive happens.

Trust me, I have been warned against constantly haranguing a billionaire and the Rasputin of local politics, Steve Pigeon, but this is important—too important to ignore. Although I enjoy politics and campaigns, mostly I am involved in politics to make a positive difference in our community. That work is made harder by elected officials who are more interested in their own ambition than what they were presumably elected to do. This dynamic, present in every corner of every democracy, is made worse by the likes of Steve Pigeon.

For nearly two decades he has been involved in politics. That time is marked by scandal and divisiveness. And for all his time, energy, and effort, I cannot point to a single positive thing he has accomplished for our community. He is motivated instead by power and greed, plain and simple. Pigeon currently makes $150,000 as counsel to State Senator Pedro Espada. That’s $150,000 for a job with no responsibilities or duties. That’s $150,000 from state taxpayers while he still has a law office at Underberg & Kessler in downtown Buffalo. This was Pigeon’s reward for coordinating the coup in Albany that shut down the government for two months.

Pigeon has no formal power or responsibility but he is able to convince those who do to do his bidding. It’s like the Jedi mind trick, used on those of weak minds: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And he never quits.

While everyone was enjoying time with their families around the Thanksgiving table, Pigeon was orchestrating the reorganization of the county legislature. This involves multiple facets of the local Democratic and Republican parties and the statewide Independence party. It is impressive in both its scope and its total disregard for anything resembling principal or public policy.

Every year the county legislature organizes itself by electing a chairperson. This person controls the hiring of the legislative staff, the flow of legislation, and certain important appointments. To become chair, a legislator must get a majority of the votes, meaning eight of 15. As of November’s election, Democrats control the legislature nine to six and so should control the reorganization. But when Pigeon gets involved, ideology and integrity get thrown out the window in exchange for short-term power grabs. In the bizarre world of Erie County politics, where up is down, Barbara Miller-Williams is the leading candidate to become chair of the Erie County Legislature.

How will Pigeon accomplish this? By orchestrating multiple moving parts into one conspiracy that ultimately will benefit no one but him.

Democratic Legislator Tim Kennedy is at the heart of this particular conspiracy. He plans to run against State Senator Bill Stachowski, a fellow Democrat, who most people believe is weak and can be beaten in a primary. Kennedy will take his shot at the seat next year, whether or not Stachowski retires. But he needs money. In walks Pigeon with promises of Golisano money, and Kennedy is wrapped up like a Christmas present. Moreover, Kennedy’s political team, led by Congressman Brian Higgins, is looking to take out Len Lenihan as chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party, a goal Pigeon shares. What better way to weaken Lenihan than control the chair of the Democratic Legislature? It is a confluence of interests that puts Higgins and Kennedy on the same side as Pigeon.

Next up is newly elected Democrat Christina Bove from West Seneca, incidentally the same town that Pigeon represented on the County Legislature in the early 1990s. Bove is close to the new head of the local Independence Party, Sandy Rosenwie. How can Pigeon convince Bove to vote for Barbara Miller-Williams? Easy. Rosenwie has two problems. First, she needs a good job. Second, the statewide Independence Party is run by Frank McCay, who has publicly stated that he will only support candidates approved by Pigeon and Golisano. After a series of court actions, the local party was stripped of its authority to endorse candidates. So Rosenwie is politically powerless despite her title. Pigeon can fix all of that. The future will bear this out. Watch to see where Rosenwie gets hired and watch her develop a new relationship with the statewide party in exchange for Bove’s vote.

Miller-Williams is easy. Obviously, she gets to be chair, with the power and pay increase that provides. More importantly, she dances to whatever tune Byron Brown is whistling. Like Higgins, Brown wants Lenihan gone, replaced with someone who will follow his instructions. It’s an easy sell.

So now Pigeon, using promises of campaign donations and Independence Party support, as well as an obsessive effort to defeat Lenihan, has three Democrats working together. Now it’s time to turn to Chris Collins and his loyal band of Republican legislators. If one only considers ideology, it’s a stretch to imagine a group of Republicans, some of them very conservative, voting for a city Democrat as chair. However, this isn’t about some pressing public policy agenda, it’s about power. Collins wants it and the Democrats have it. Lining up five Republican votes for Barbara Miller Williams probably didn’t even take five phone calls. Don’t believe me? The Republicans just voted on December 1 to fund $300,000 for the Colored Musicians Club—not because their constituents from Clarence and Akron care deeply about African-American heritage in the City of Buffalo but because this was Miller-Williams’ pet project.

And so the Legislature will be organized and controlled by five Republicans and three Democrats who share nothing except a willingness to be pawns in Pigeon’s game.

Moving into 2010, Pigeon will be all over the map, with his hand in every pie. There is a governor’s race next year, and Pigeon, dispensing with the clarity of party labels and ideologies, has his foot firmly planted in both Republican and Democratic parties. The Republicans may well nominate Chris Collins and the Democrats will choose between Andrew Cuomo and David Paterson. Whoever is running will have to go to Pigeon and Golisano for the Independence Party nomination, worth tens of thousands of votes. Even Andrew Cuomo, whose popularity is soaring, may not have the chutzpah to take on Pigeon. Cuomo could, if he chose to, completely ignore Pigeon. Because Pigeon’s power is almost entirely illusory and based on powerful people’s perceptions of him, an indifferent Cuomo would deal Pigeon a lethal blow. Cuomo could decide to disregard Pigeon and all of his nonsense and become governor without Pigeon or Golisano. That path, however, is more difficult. It will be interesting to see which path Cuomo takes.

Locally, we will of course witness another brutal primary against Assemblyman Sam Hoyt. (I will most assuredly be involved in Hoyt’s campaign as I always have been.) It also appears that Pigeon is going to mount a primary against every Western New York Democratic Assemblymember who is loyal to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. We will likely see primaries against Robin Schimminger and Dennis Gabryszak. This is probably why Mark Schroeder recently renewed his call for a change in leadership in the Assembly—it’s a simple way to avoid a primary. Silver remains the only significant statewide power base that ignores Pigeon, his demands, and his endless machinations.

Despite Golisano and Pigeon’s protestations to the contrary, the evidence of coordination during the 2008 election season is pretty obvious. It is certainly enough to warrant further investigation. In the summer of 2008, Tom Golisano, aided by Steve Pigeon, created Responsible New York. At the exact same time, Steve Pigeon was authorized by the Joe Mesi campaign to expend Mesi campaign funds. In other words, he was intimately involved with both Responsible New York and the Joe Mesi campaign for Senate.

Golisano himself recently wrote in the Buffalo News what coordination means: “coordinating a campaign with an unauthorized committee to the extent that mailings, voter targets, issues and expenditures are brought into common action or movement.” Exactly. While Pigeon was advising Mesi and helping him to determine what to spend money on, how to raise money, etc., he was also creating a $5 million dollar fund that would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Mesi’s behalf, including television, radio, mailing,s and lawn signs. Any reasonable definition of “coordination” would have to include this activity.

Pigeon’s argument is that when those funds were spent, he was no longer a signatory for Joe Mesi. This legal argument is about as weak as they come. However, since it is a legal argument, it should be considered by a judge and jury. Pigeon should not be able to decide what it means to “coordinate” any more than a shoplifter should be able to decide what “past the points of all purchase” means.

In 2008, several attorneys and I wrote to the district attorneys across New York. They responded that they did not have the resources to investigate properly. They did not dismiss my claims, they simply stated they did not have the money or staff to get involved. The current Erie County District Attorney responded exactly the same way earlier this year. However, the State Board of Elections, after conducting its own investigation and in a show of unity between Republicans and Democrats, referred the complaint to the Albany County District Attorney’s office, where it sits awaiting action. Also, earlier this fall, Governor Paterson directed his counsel to investigate claims by former Assistant District Attorney Mark Sacha that Pigeon violated the law. I have sent my information on to that counsel, who recently interviewed Erie County’s two election commissioners about Pigeon’s activities.

Ultimately, I do not know what will happen with these investigations. My cynical side says nothing. But until a judge rules definitively on these claims, I intend to continue to write my letters and fight for what I believe is the soul of democracy in New York. Unless and until he is stopped, Pigeon will continue to weaken our local and statewide political processes; he corrupts them and warps them, bending them to his own purposes. The end result for the average voter will be a continuing decline of our community.

Jeremy Toth is a local attorney and proud political hack.

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