The Erie County Board of Elections voted unanimously Wednesday to investigate a controversial fundraising committee with close ties to noted political operative G. Steven Pigeon that pumped an astonishing $267,000 into last month’s primary campaigns for candidates opposing those who had the Democratic endorsement.
The ruling launches a rare probe into local claims of election law violations and stems from complaints lodged by County Legislators Betty Jean Grant and Timothy R. Hogues against the WNY Progressive Caucus. A formal complaint was also filed by former Assistant District Attorney Mark A. Sacha, who has long contended that election law remains weakly enforced in Erie County.
The action marks the second bipartisan investigation by the board of a political committee closely associated with Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman who contributed almost $100,000 of his own money over the past few months to a fund that paid for all of the television advertising of Richard E. Dobson.
The retired sheriff’s lieutenant challenged the Democratic Party’s endorsed candidate and won the primary for sheriff Sept. 10 but never purchased any television time of his own.
Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph M. Mohr joined Dennis E. Ward, his Democratic counterpart, to initiate a probe that could be forwarded to District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, should evidence of criminal activity be discovered.
The commissioners said they initially see no evidence of required paperwork that would register the WNY Progressive Caucus as an independent body rather than a political action committee bound by contribution limits.
As he has in the past, Pigeon scoffed at any notion of illegal activity by the caucus, to which he contributed significantly and which was administered by Kristy Mazurek, a close associate.
“They’re all a bunch of bellyachers, crybabies and sore losers,” Pigeon said Wednesday, hinting at legal action against his accusers.
But the Wednesday session at the board involved stronger accusations from Grant and Hogues than were originally filed right after the primary. Appearing for the legislators, attorney Jerome D. Schad told commissioners that the caucus failed to report about $35,000 of television expenditures on Dobson’s behalf, pointing out it spent about $112,000 in total. He also said that because the caucus was never registered as an independent committee with no spending limits, it had violated state spending laws.
“My request is to do an investigation,” Schad said. “We’re eroding public confidence in government, and the last thing we need is to erode public confidence in the electoral process.
“However you view the use of money on campaigns, we have a system in this state that says it has to be on a level playing field,” he added. “That’s not what the actions of this committee suggest.”
Ward noted that he and Mohr initiated a probe of Pigeon in 2008 in connection with the Responsible New York committee sponsored by former Buffalo Sabres owner and gubernatorial candidate B. Thomas Golisano. The results of their investigation were then forwarded to Albany County District Attorney P. David Soares, who took no action.
Ward said he suspects the money raised and spent by the WNY Progressive Caucus was not properly recorded, while Mohr noted the investigation would now center around spending and reporting requirements rather than claims of illegal coordination between the committee and the Dobson campaign, as well as with several legislative efforts assisted by the caucus.
Ward also said he saw none of the required paperwork that would establish the caucus as an independent entity with unlimited spending, though Mazurek said she submitted an amendment to original papers before the primary election.
“I have been in compliance the entire time,” she said.
Sacha also attended Wednesday’s hearing, reiterating his long-held contention that Sedita faces a conflict of interest in pursuing Pigeon because of his connections with the former chairman, an influential member of the local and state political community. That’s an allegation the district attorney dismisses.
Sedita fired Sacha in 2009 after his former assistant claimed the DA gave Pigeon a pass on alleged election law violations in connection with the campaign of former West Seneca Supervisor Paul T. Clark for county executive in 2007.
Sacha said the district attorney’s failure to prosecute election law violations is now having an effect on local elections through activities such as those exhibited by the caucus. (Sedita says he will prosecute such cases but lacks investigatory resources.)
“I don’t know if anyone realizes how outrageous this is,” Sacha told the commissioners. “The problem here is quite obvious and I’m asking for an entity that has the power, to investigate what is ethically, morally and possibly criminally wrong.”
Sacha, Grant and Hogues all have also filed official complaints about the caucus with the Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, but have received no acknowledgement of their requests for an investigation.
Pigeon and Mazurek contend that a recent ruling by a federal appeals court negates any claim of spending limits by committees like the WNY Progressive Caucus.