When Betty Jean Grant officially complained to a new state panel investigating public corruption that election laws were being violated in Erie County, the County Legislature chairwoman expected someone to at least acknowledge her concerns.
But almost six weeks later, Grant has received nary a passing inquiry about her charge that an independent political committee associated with former Erie County Democratic Chairman G. Steven Pigeon violated election law in the September Democratic primary.
“There’s been absolutely no action whatsoever,” said Grant, who was joined in her complaint by Legislator Timothy R. Hogues, D-Buffalo. “The fact that there has been no return letter to me makes me wonder if somehow feet are being dragged for political reasons.”
Pigeon dismisses the complaints as “more crybaby, political bellyaching,” while again insisting nobody has demonstrated “a scintilla of coordination evidence” that would point to his committee being in cahoots with individual campaigns – which could be found illegal.
“That’s because there is none,” he said. “There is nothing to investigate.”
But the complaint of foul play is not just about Pigeon. Voices are growing stronger about the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created this summer to root out government wrongdoing.
As Grant fumes about her unanswered complaint, others around New York State are raising concerns about whether the panel is being influenced by the Cuomo administration and is selective in what it probes.
The complaints being made about the Moreland Commission include belated subpoenas of Democratic records well after subpoenas for Republican records were filed, Cuomo administration push-back on commission subpoenas of big political donors, and lack of independence.
There also has been much speculation whether the commission, appointed by Cuomo, will look into Albany’s biggest fundraiser of all: Cuomo. His campaign account has $28 million on hand and more on the way with big donor events already scheduled well into the fall from Buffalo to New York City.
So the unanswered complaint against Pigeon, who has ties to Cuomo and some Cuomo-appointed members to the Moreland Commission, provides yet another reason to be concerned about the panel’s independence, according to Grant.
Michelle Duffy, a spokeswoman for the commission, would not comment specifically on the Pigeon complaints.
“The Moreland Commission has received hundreds of tips and reviews each and every one of them on their merits,” she said.
But the complaints against Pigeon and his ties to Cuomo are several.
• Pigeon’s has long supported Cuomo, including his endorsement of Cuomo’s ill-fated bid for governor in 2002 when most other Democrats backed then-Comptroller H. Carl McCall.
• Pigeon has a new and enhanced role as a key adviser to Cuomo in Western New York, where he is expected to have a role in much of the politics associated with the governor’s 2014 re-election effort.
• Pigeon contributed $50,000 to Cuomo at his Waldorf-Astoria birthday party last year.
• One of Cuomo’s appointees to the commission, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, was introduced by Pigeon to billionaire B. Thomas Golisano in 2010 when he and Pigeon both wielded significant power in the state Independence Party, according to the Village Voice. At the time, Rice was running for state attorney general.
• Another Cuomo appointee to the commission, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, was getting political advice from Pigeon when Sedita was preparing to run for district attorney. And a former assistant prosecutor accused Sedita of giving a pass to Pigeon on alleged election law violations in 2007.
• As attorney general, Cuomo did not pursue what a counsel to then-Gov. David A. Paterson described as a “pattern of election law violations” in Erie County and linked to Pigeon.
Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rick Lazio in 2010 accused Cuomo of not acting on that conclusion because of Pigeon’s influence in granting Independence endorsements.
Cuomo was beginning his gubernatorial campaign at the time, and dismissed as “silly” any suggestion that he failed to pursue the violations, citing a lack of jurisdiction.
The Moreland Commission has procedures in place to deal with potential conflicts, according to Duffy, the spokeswoman.
“In general, if an investigation is launched and a member or co-chair has a conflict of interest, that individual will recuse themselves from any part of that investigation,” she said.
The commission has come under mounting media scrutiny and has been criticized by government watchdog groups who question whether the panel is more of a political than investigative body.
Various media, including the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Associated Press, have depicted a commission unwilling to show independence from Cuomo’s office. For instance, aides to Cuomo pushed back against the commission’s plans to subpoena the Real Estate Board of New York, a megadonor in Albany that looks out for the interests of New York City developers.
The Real Estate Board also has been a major source of contributions to the governor, and watchdog groups, including Common Cause/NY, have wanted the commission to investigate big tax breaks awarded this past legislative session to a handful of influential real estate developers in Manhattan.
The commission has also come under fire for what has been portrayed as selective use of subpoenas. It targeted Republican campaign accounts, but not the state Democratic Party, which Cuomo controls.
Only after media reports did the commission announce last week that it was sending subpoenas to housekeeping accounts of a number of political party organizations in New York, including Cuomo’s Democratic Party.
The New York Daily News, meanwhile, has been exposing the commission’s problems in a series of news stories, columns and editorials. Last week, the paper demanded the commission “produce an unassailably credible show-and-tell on Albany’s inner workings.”
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office is assisting the Moreland Commission members, said on a public radio interview last week that the commission must be independent and follow the trail of campaign donations wherever investigators decide.
“I’m opposed to anything that stands in the way of those goals,” he said.
Recently, a new complaint was filed with the Moreland Commission and the Erie County Board of Elections by former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha, also alleging election fraud in the 2013 Democratic primary activities of the WNY Progressive Caucus.
Sacha’s complaint is similar to the one Grant and Hogues filed, noting that Pigeon contributed or loaned $96,000 of his own money to the caucus and that the caucus worked against candidates supported by Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who has no political relationship with the governor.
Sedita fired Sacha in 2009 for airing his complaints to The Buffalo News about Pigeon.
“I am personally aware of the efforts of Sedita III to do everything in his power to stonewall prosecution of his friend Mr. Pigeon for criminal violations that I uncovered during the investigation I conducted in 2007 and 2008 while I served as deputy district attorney,” Sacha told the commission. “On a general level, Sedita III has repeatedly reiterated his refusal to investigate election law violations.
“All of this is illegal, unethical and morally wrong,” he added.
In addition to asking the commission to investigate the 2013 activities of the WNY Progressive Caucus, Sacha also asked the commission to look at another committee with close Pigeon ties, Democratic Action.
Sacha said Sedita should at least recuse himself from any matters involving Pigeon, and he raises similar questions about Cuomo and his relationship with Pigeon.
Sedita emphasized late last week that he cannot address any of Sacha’s complaints.
“We are all under instruction not to talk about deliberations or investigations of the commission and to discuss them would constitute a crime,” he said. “I am not at liberty to talk.”
Pigeon also said there should be no question about the commission’s objectivity because all members of the community maintain relationships with legislators who may be the recipients of commission subpoenas.
But Grant and others wonder if their complaints to the Moreland Commission can receive a fair hearing. “I have less confidence in this today that I did a month ago,’’ Grant said of the commission.
“I’m extremely disappointed they did not even give me the courtesy of a reply … and treat this as if it is just nothing,’’ she added.