Schneiderman on Sedita: “I don’t know where Frank is today”: On Tuesday afternoon, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman came to Buffalo to drum up support for the ethics reform legislation he has proposed, which would prohibit outside income for legislators, increase legislators’ terms from two to four years, lower contribution limits, close the loophole that allows LLCs to flood campaign with donations, and permit public funding of campaigns, among other provisions.
Alongside the usual media types covering the press conference on the steps of old County Hall were a handful of good-government advocates, as well as passersby. One of these was attorney Mark Sacha, the former deputy district attorney who was fired in 2009 by his boss, Frank Sedita III, after he publicly accused Sedita of protecting political operative Steve Pigeon from investigation because of Pigeon’s political ties to the Sedita family.
Schneiderman’s office, of course, took part in last Thursday’s raids of the residences of three local political operatives: Pigeon, former Buffalo deputy mayor Steve Casey, and Chris Grant, who is chief of staff to Congressman Chris Collins.
“Where is Frank Sedita today?” Sacha asked Schneiderman, during the question-and-answer period. That is, why was the county’s top law enforcement official—a former member of the governor’s Moreland Commission on public corruption—absent from a press conference about putting an end to public corruption? Could it be, Sacha was suggesting, that he is laying low because his crony Pigeon is in Schneiderman’s crosshairs? Because the state attorney general had made the county district attorney look lousy by daring to investigate where Sedita refused to?
Schneiderman had already rebuffed one question about Thursday’s raid, calling it an ongoing investigation. But he smiled at Sacha’s question, paused, then said, “I don’t know where Frank is today.”
Indeed, no one knows where Frank Sedita has been over the last week.
The region’s other premier law enforcement official, US Attorney Bill Hochul, had the good sense to recuse himself from the investigation: His wife, Kathy, is lieutenant governor, and Pigeon frequently touts his close relationship with Governor Andrew Cuomo; plus, his wife lost her seat in Congress to Collins in 2012.
Sedita, on the other hand, is acting as if the whole thing isn’t happening.
The latest notes and rumors: GOP political operative Mike Caputo reports on his blog, PoliticsNY.net, that Kristy Mazurek is cooperating with investigators in Pigeon/Casey/Grant investigation and has been granted immunity by prosecutors. Mazurek—erstwhile TV talk-show host, scion of a Cheektowaga political family—is the treasurer for Western New York Progressive Caucus, the campaign committee whose screwy activities and campaign finance disclosure filings in 2012 led to the investigation that resulted in Thursday’s raids.
The fact that Mazurek’s house was not raided suggested to many that she might be cooperating. She has retained veteran defense attorney Joel Daniels, which is as sure a signal as exists around here that she has done something wrong. It’s not unlike Pigeon hiring attorney Paul Cambria, or…
1) Also lawyering up is State Senator Tim Kennedy, who has retained Terry Connors—every bit has high-profile a hire as Mazurek’s bringing in Daniels or Pigeon bringing in Cambria. (Casey is represented by Rodney Personius, Grant by Thomas Eoannou—also big names.) Kennedy donated $85,000 to Western New York Progressive Caucus, $40,000 of which was supposed to have come from a committee that Kennedy made inactive two years earlier. But his house wasn’t raided and, just like the three whose houses were searched, he has not yet been accused of any wrongdoing. I suppose he’s thinking: Better safe than sorry.
2) We are told 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.
3) Western New York Progressive Caucus 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.
4) 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.
5) Pigeon has been fired as a lobbyist for the Seneca Nation of Indians. The investigation seems to center on the source of donations to Western New York Progressive Caucus, and there is Seneca money in that mix.
The McCarthy/Pigeon nexus: If ever you doubted that Steve Pigeon’s career is anything less than a rocketship, forever ascendant behind an awe-inspiring plume of fire, the columns of Buffalo News reporter Bob McCarthy exist to set you right.
Two Sundays ago, for example, McCarthy offered the latest in his regular series of single-sourced columns celebrating Pigeon’s putative influence in Albany and afield. (The single source was, of course, Pigeon.) In the column, McCarthy allowed the political apparatchik an opportunity to spin his recent departure from his Rochester based law firm, Underberg & Kessler, ostensibly to expand the lobbying firm he runs with long-time acolyte Gary Parenti.
“I do so much consulting and lobbying now that it just made sense,” Pigeon told McCarthy.
Why does that make sense? Pigeon was “of counsel” to Underberg & Kessler. His job was to use his political contacts to steer business to the firm. He did little, if any, actual lawyering. How could his lobbying activity take time away from a job whose objectives were accomplished simultaneous to that lobbying activity?
The decision, Pigeon told McCarthy, was “mutual.” So it’s fair to say that the firm was pleased to see him go. Let’s consider some other possible explanations for his departure:
1) Pigeon was not producing as much work for the firm as it would like.
2) The firm was worried (or knew) that Pigeon would be swept up by the investigation that led to his home being searched on Thursday by state and federal agents.
3) A combination of #1 and #2: The firm worried about Pigeon’s exposure, and the business he produced was not enough to justify the risk to the firm’s reputation and clients.
These explanations all make much more sense than “I just want to spend more time with Gary Parenti.” But the Buffalo News’s politics reporter either didn’t challenge Pigeon’s explanation for his departure or decided not to share his defense of it.