The trial of renegade Democrat, G. Steven Pigeon is scheduled to begin Sept. 5. before acting State Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio Jr., a mainstream Democrat.
Pigeon was once a mainstream Democrat when he was chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party from 1996-2002. After being ousted, he served as an outsider to the mainstream party often upsetting their plans in primaries and general elections. Most notably he engineered a coup that toppled Democratic control of the state senate in 2009.
New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, brought charges of bribery and extortion against Pigeon, a longtime, bitter political foe, last June.
Schneiderman was one of the highest ranking members of the senate Democratic majority when Pigeon snatched control from the mainstream Democrats headed by Schneiderman in the 2009 coup, which gave a coalition of maverick Democrats and mainstream Republicans the majority for a time.
Twelve citizens will be selected from the public to judge the facts, the law, and the context of the prosecution and will sit as a jury.
Pigeon is represented by Buffalo defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr..
Judge Cerio, a Court of Claims judge for Madison County, New York, who is an acting state supreme court justice, was selected to preside in the case rather than a judge sitting in Western New York who would undoubtedly know Pigeon.
Judge Cerio was appointed to his current position in 2008 by Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, and political ally of Schneiderman. Schneiderman, then a state senator, voted for Cerio’s confirmation.
Cerio’s current term expires this year and he awaits reappointment by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo. Pigeon was aligned at one time with Gov. Cuomo and offered him considerable help in his early career and continued to be an advisor and fund raiser for Cuomo after his election as governor.
Since Pigeon’s indictment, Cuomo has distanced himself from Pigeon.
Prior to his becoming a judge, Cerio, a Democrat in largely Republican Madison County, was a career prosecutor. He was Madison County District Attorney from 1990 to 2008. Before that he was an assistant DA from 1983 to 1989.
A defense motion to suppress evidence found during a search warrant of Pigeon’s home and cell phone in 2015, based on an altered search warrant and the potential bias of the judge who issued the warrant, was denied by Judge Cerio.
The original search warrant was issued by Judge Michael Pietruszka, a Democrat, and longtime political foe of Pigeon. Judge Cerio ruled that the FBI and state investigators followed the law when, while conducting the search warrant, they found they had the wrong address and the document was subsequently altered to the correct address, and that the feud between Pigeon and Pietruszka, which commenced when Pietruszka did not get the Democratic Party nomination for state supreme court in 1996 when Pigeon was party chairman, was of too old a vintage to have possibly influenced Judge Pietruszka’s decision to grant a search warrant on the home of a lawyer for misdemeanor election law violations.
While Pigeon’s home was raided by law enforcement agents on May 28, 2015, representatives from most of WNY’s media outlets were outside the home apparently tipped off by someone of the raid.
Agents were searching for evidence of misdemeanor election law violations connected to a Political Action Committee Pigeon allegedly controlled. They seized his cell phone at the raid and found a series of emails between New York State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek and Pigeon that they allege were evidence of felony crimes.
Pigeon’s nine count indictment includes two counts of bribery, one count of theft by extortion and six counts of rewarding official misconduct.
The bribery charges relate to Pigeon’s alleged bribery of Judge Michalek, who copped a guilty plea to two felonies: Bribe Receiving in the Third Degree, a class D felony, and Offering a False Instrument for Filing in the First Degree, a class E felony.
In a move that would be charged as extortion if the defense acted similarly, but is perfectly legal for the government, prosecutors told Michalek that he and his wife Patricia were facing federal charges, which could be avoided if the judge took a state plea deal and agreed to testify against Pigeon.
Michalek, 65, a mainstream Democrat who remained friendly to Pigeon, spared his wife, resigned his judgeship, lost his law license, and preserved his $120,500 state pension by accepting the plea. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed to make no sentencing recommendations. Normally, as dozens of sentences in cases across the nation show, a judge who accepts a bribe is considered more culpable than the lawyer who offers it and receives a stiffer sentence.
The lead prosecutor for the state, Assistant Attorney General Susan H. Sadinsky, a Democrat, who helped craft the plea deal, served as Michalek’s campaign treasurer for his 2008 re-election as state supreme court judge.
Michalek could be sentenced to up to seven years in prison but it is in Judge Cerio’s discretion to sentence him to a lesser sentence including probation.
Pigeon faces up to 15 years if convicted on all counts.
Among the alleged bribes, Pigeon is alleged to have provided tickets to two games in box seats to Buffalo Sabres hockey games to Michalek and his wife, Patricia, and a ticket to a $250 political fundraiser for Gov. Andrew Cuomo which Patricia attended.
In their series of emails, Pigeon also allegedly agreed to try to help Michalek secure an appointment from Gov. Cuomo to the Appellate Division. He did not receive the appointment.
Michalek also asked Pigeon to help him find a job for his son and get a non-;paying political appointment for his wife. Pigeon was unable to deliver on Michalek’s requests.
The state alleges “At the same time that Judge Michalek sought benefits from Pigeon, Pigeon had an interest in lawsuits pending before Judge Michalek. During this period, Judge Michalek kept Pigeon apprised of the status of the lawsuits, engaged in ex parte communications with Pigeon about them, sought Pigeon’s advice and input on various issues that arose when the cases came up on his calendar, provided Pigeon with advice as to how the cases should be handled, and made favorable rulings in certain situations to protect Pigeon’s clients and business associates’ interests.”
Pigeon’s clients, who had two cases before Michalek, did not win a favorable verdict from Michalek since they settled out of court.
Also according to the indictment, Judge Michalek chose to appoint Edward Betz, 30, an attorney Pigeon recommended, to a receivership position overseeing a golf course which paid the young lawyer $45,000. Betz did not take the three-hour course necessary to qualify for the position.
Pigeon is charged with Grand Larceny by Extortion in relation to that appointment. The state alleged that Pigeon illegally extracted an illegal $5,000 consulting fee from Betz following the appointment which the young attorney allegedly paid out of fear.
Despite allegedly paying $5,000 to Pigeon via extortion, Betz continued to seek help from Pigeon.
Pigeon subsequently helped Betz procure the position of general counsel for the Erie County Water Authority at a salary of $124,000; referred clients to Betz who paid him more than $100,000 in legal fees, got him work on various campaigns where he earned fees, and through contacts introduced to him through Pigeon, Betz was appointed to a $160,000 position as general counsel for the Buffalo School Board.
Betz, who has since moved out of the area, told The Buffalo News: “My only involvement in this matter is that I was asked to violate my ethical responsibilities as a receiver, and I steadfastly refused to do that.”