State and federal investigators Thursday searched the homes of three Western New York political operatives – confidants to the New York governor, Buffalo mayor and a member of Congress – sending shock waves across state Democratic and Republican party circles.
The investigation of G. Steven Pigeon, Steven M. Casey and Christopher M. Grant appears focused around an independent political committee called the WNY Progressive Caucus, which has ties to Pigeon. Investigators appear interested in the financial activities of the caucus and its ties to several political campaigns in recent years. The probe also includes questions about “elevated” payments for advertising, mailings and other political activities, a law enforcement official said.
The raids targeted three men who have been integral players in local and statewide politics, and that fact was not lost on party insiders in Buffalo and Albany.
Pigeon has vast political connections, from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to billionaire businessman B. Thomas Golisano.
Casey – dubbed the “shadow mayor” – was until last year the first deputy mayor under Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.
Grant is chief of staff for Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
The Buffalo mayor, Byron Brown, says he is not a target of the investigation:
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown acknowledged he knows all three Western New York political figures involved in State Attorney General’s Office probe. Brown told reporters Friday he was surprised by the raids and is in no way connected.
“I have been informed by law enforcement that I’m not involved in the investigation,” said Brown.
The Cuomo administration, however, had no comment:
Last year, Pigeon also gave $54,000 to Cuomo’s re-election campaign. He and Cuomo have been tight for years, and the governor has sent signals to people in and out of government in Western New York that Pigeon should be considered his go-to political point person from the area.
The Cuomo administration had no comment Thursday.
The Buffalo Chronicle wondered back in February if the investigation into Pigeon was politically motivated to go after Governor Cuomo:
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been roundly criticized for failing to pursue public corruption cases against elected officials who have been accused of enriching themselves with public dollars.
So it is curious, they say, that he would allocate law enforcement resources into investigating a much more minor charge against the lobbyist G. Steven Pigeon, a former Chairman of the Erie County Democratic Party and an active figure in New York politics.
Pigeon, an intrepid political insider who engages in politics like sport, contributed $100,000 in personal savings to a PAC, managed by the political operative Kristy Mazurek. By all accounts, both are well versed in the legalities surrounding campaign spending and political action committees and insist that they adhered to those laws strictly.
Political observers say the investigation is a politically charged abuse of power that will backfire on the sitting Attorney General, whose central participation in the Moreland Commission debacle has raised serious ethics questions inside his office.
Pigeon is close to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is at odds with Scheiderman. In political circles, the AG is rumored to have cut a deal with US Attorney Preet Bharara on the Moreland Commission corruption scandal. Schneiderman’s deputizing of Commission members implicates him all sorts of legal improprieties. It’s rumored that he cut a deal to insulate himself from the scandal, but that has not been confirmed by either office.
Cuomo and Schneiderman have since been feuding intensely behind the scenes. Local operatives surmise that the AG is going after Pigeon as part of the tit-for-tat back and forth with the Governor’s political machine.
Schneiderman is known to be ambitious with his eyes set on the Governor’s mansion. Operatives close to Cuomo say that Schneiderman saw an opening to scandalize the Governor and, potentially, push him out of office.
It certainly sounds like someone from Cuomo's side was trying to get out the story that the investigation into Pigeon was politically motivated and bogus, that Schneiderman is behind it.
More and more, the tension between Schneiderman and Cuomo is out in the open.
This week, Schneiderman unveiled ethics reforms in a high profile speech meant to embarrass Sheriff Andy for doing little to clean up the cesspool that is Alabny politics.
Then came the Pigeon raid.
Pigeon, as detailed here, is close to the governor, has been "taking on more assignments from Cuomo" and was described as the governor's "top political person" in Western New York.
There's also a connection to Cuomo's lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul:
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. has recused himself from an investigation into the political activities of G. Steven Pigeon, sources close to the probe told The Buffalo News on Friday.
Because of the potential political ramifications of the probe – including the fact that Pigeon has served as a top political adviser to his wife’s boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – Hochul removed himself from the case weeks ago and named his top assistant – James P. Kennedy – to oversee the investigation and coordinate with the state Attorney General’s Office, the sources said.
The U.S. Justice Department requires a prosecutor to recuse himself or herself from a case when “a conflict of interest exists or there is an appearance of a conflict of interest or loss of impartiality.”
The investigation – which became public knowledge Thursday with the execution of three search warrants – is focused on the political activities of Pigeon, former Democratic Party chairman for Erie County; Steven M. Casey, a Democrat and former deputy mayor of Buffalo; and Christopher M. Grant, a Republican who serves as chief of staff for Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.
While Hochul’s office declined to comment on the reports of his recusal, there is a clear thicket of potential conflicts created by his wife’s career in political office:
• Lt. Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul works for and with Cuomo, and Pigeon for years has served as a top political adviser to the governor. Pigeon donated $54,000 to Cuomo’s successful re-election campaign last year.
• Grant was the campaign chairman for the candidates who opposed Kathleen Hochul in two hard-fought Congressional campaigns. In 2011, Kathleen Hochul defeated Republican Jane Corwin in a race for Congress. In 2012, Collins defeated Hochul in a run for the same seat. Grant ran both campaigns against Hochul.
• Kathleen Hochul has long been associated with a faction of the Erie County Democratic Party that has had a heated rivalry with Pigeon. Former county Democratic Party chairman Leonard Lenihan – a longtime rival of Pigeon’s – lobbied hard for Kathleen Hochul’s appointment to her first major political office, as county clerk, in 2007. That appointment set the stage for her later rise to congresswoman and lieutenant governor.
• Government records show that Pigeon gave a small campaign donation to Kathleen Hochul – $250 – in 2011.
I'm not smart enough to know if Schneiderman is looking to use this Pigeon raid to embarrass Cuomo and tie him to corruption in Western New York while also advance his own corruption-fighting credentials for a future political run (perhaps for Cuomo's current job?)
But it does seem like that was the story Cuomo wanted out there in February, before the search warrants and the raids on Pigeon, Casey and Grant.