Wagging Tongues: Pigeon/Casey/Grant

by / Jun. 1, 2015 11am EST

Nothing allows the imagination to soar so freely as a lack of information. And the momentous events of Thursday morning—when state and federal investigators raided the houses of veteran political apparatchik Steve Pigeon, former Buffalo deputy mayor Steve Casey, and Chris Grant, chief of staff to Congressman Chris Collins—have been attended by so little explanation that the air is congested with theories.

These are three of Western New York’s premier backroom dealmakers, with ties to dozens of elected officials and big campaign donors. There is a lot of nailbiting among the region’s political class this week, and a great deal of gossip.

Here’s what we do know:

—The raids are part of an investigation that originated with the Erie County Board of Elections into Western New York Progressive Caucus, an unauthorized committee formed by Pigeon and his associates to support their candidates in the 2013 election cycle. Pigeon and company lost an effort to take over the local Democratic Party in 2012; the fielding of insurgent candidates in 2013 was an extension of that fight. (And an almost complete failure.)

—Two incumbents targeted by negative mailers paid for the WNYPC filed a complaint with the state and county BOEs; that complaint was fleshed out by Mark Sacha, a former deputy district attorney in Erie County who was fired when he publicly criticized two of his bosses for failing to pursue charges against Pigeon for 2007 election law violations, which Sacha had investigated. Sacha filed his complain with the state BOE and the Moreland Commission, to which he gave testimony about Pigeon and his associates.

—The state BOE voted in March 2014 to open an investigation, taking it out of the hands of the county BOE. Some time that ensuing summer, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman decided that he wanted in. Before long, state and federal investigators were all over Erie County questioning those who had taken part in the 2013 races in which WNYPC had been involved—winners, losers, staff, donors.

—But a curious thing: The questions the investigators asked were not just about campaign finance and tactics—matters in which Pigeon has a reputation for lawlessness and dirt-slinging—but about a web of LLCs and shady real-estate deals. There were questions about Mayor Byron Brown and Casey, and about Democratic operative Jack O’Donnell. O’Donnell, the son of Democratic politicians John and Denise O’Donnell, is Pigeon’s protegé. His political consulting companies have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Pigeon-directed campaigns and committees in recent years. At The Public, we wrote about this in November.

Then the investigation went silent until Thursday morning.

And here are some themes of the rampant conversation since the search warrants were executed:

—A rumor: There are five targets of the probe. We now know three of them; the other two remain a mystery, but one of them is supposedly a big donor to local campaigns.

—A fact: WNYPC spent a fair chunk of money with Buying Time, a DC-based political consulting firm. Buying Time has been popular with Democrats statewide in the last few election cycles, including with Governor Andrew Cuomo and his allies. When the Moreland Commission subpoenaed Buying Time’s financial records as part of its examination of corruption in New York State politics, the governor’s office pressured the commission to withdraw the subpoena—which it dutifully did. This was the beginning of the end of the Moreland Commission.

—A theory: Grant’s involvement likely has to do with a political consulting and printing company called Herd Solutions, of which he was CEO until he joined Collins as chief of staff. Rumor has it that Casey was a silent partner in Herd Solutions, and that the company may have been serving kickbacks to its principals and allies in a number of ways—overbilling, billing for services that were never delivered, etc. (Though Grant is a Republican and Casey and Pigeon are Democrats, the three have connived politically before; when Collins was Erie County executive, he worked with Pigeon and Casey to create a Collins-friendly majority in the county legislature, allying dissident Democratic legislators with Republicans. Grant also pitched in on Brown’s last re-election campaign.) Herd Solutions serviced local GOP candidates, mostly, as well as the state GOP, and independent Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, a Buffalo Democrat who won his seat in 2012 running on the Republican and Independence lines. The company also did business with Matt Doheny’s unsuccessful 2014 bid for New York’s 21st Congressional District seat. In two years the company did about $850,000 in business in New York State, according to filings. Some observers have noted that one of Herd’s clients, state Senator Mike Ranzenhofer, sent his $74,000 payment to an office in Asheville, North Carolina. If Herd is suspected of fraud, then, the fraud crossed state lines and became a federal matter.

—Another theory: The real-estate deals referenced by investigators in their interviews last fall most likely have to do with the Pyramid Company, run by the Congel family of Syracuse, which has long been trying to redevelop a former shopping mall in West Seneca, where Pigeon began his political career. Casey left his deputy mayor post to run that show for the Congels; Pigeon has been working for years to help the Congels wrangle some lucrative use for the parcel, in whose future Erie County Conservative Party chairman Ralph Lorigo also has at least an indirect interest. (Lorigo owns adjacent property.) It has been floated as site for a casino, for a mixed-use entertainment complex, and most recently as the site of a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, among other schemes.

—And finally, a speculative list of people who must be made especially nervous by Thursday’s raids: certainly Brown, whose political operation was run by Casey for a dozen years; O’Donnell, if only because investigators used his name specifically in their interviews last fall; state Senator Tim Kennedy, who was a big donor to WNYPC ($85,000) and who has been joined at the hip with Casey and Pigeon since he joined that Collins-friendly Republican-Democrat coalition on the Erie County Legislature in 2009; Kristy Mazurek, WNYPC’s treasurer, who has retained top-shelf Buffalo defense attorney Joel Daniels—a good indication around these parts that you’re guilty of something; and current Erie County Legislator Peter Savage, who was Casey’s right-hand man in City Hall and likely to be swept up in any perfidy his boss concocted.

And, of course, there are the two other parties purported to be subjects of the investigation—if they actually exist.