The State Board of Elections voted unanimously Tuesday to investigate alleged campaign finance violations by a controversial fundraising committee closely tied to Buffalo political operative G. Steven Pigeon.
Neither the board nor Erie County’s two elections commissioners – who brought the complaint and who attended Tuesday’s Albany session – would comment on the executive session of the board. But board spokesman John W. Conklin confirmed the three state commissioners voted to “open an investigation” of the charge submitted by local Democratic Elections Commissioner Dennis E. Ward and his Republican counterpart, Ralph M. Mohr.
Both contend that the WNY Progressive Caucus, which raised $267,000 for opponents of several candidates backed by Democratic Party headquarters in last fall’s primary, violated election law by filing campaign finance reports marked by discrepancies between what was reported to the board and what was actually paid to local television stations for political ads.
According to a source close to the local investigation, the discrepancies were discovered through subpoenas issued by the county elections board. The timetable for completion of the state investigation was unavailable Tuesday, but local sources indicate such efforts are usually conducted by the State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
Kristy L. Mazurek, treasurer of the fund and the expected focus of the new probe, late Tuesday emphasized neither she nor anyone else associated with the committee is guilty of any impropriety.
“Every dollar brought in by donors has been documented,” she said, adding that any technical errors were corrected by amendment and “duly noted.”
Mazurek, a close Pigeon associate, has been prominently mentioned as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination to succeed Dennis H. Gabryszak of Cheektowaga in the Assembly following his July resignation over sexual harassment charges – some leveled by her.
Pigeon was even more adamant Tuesday in his denunciation of the effort, labeling it a “frivolous, political witch hunt” orchestrated by Ward – a long time intra-party foe. He noted that the board has rarely pursued other complaints except those involving him, and with no success.
“He’d rather be Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick than do his job properly,” Pigeon said of Ward. “He goes after no other campaigns except mine.”
Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic chairman, emphasized that any discrepancies lying at the heart of the local complaint are “technical and clerical” in nature. The complaint to be probed does not involve the charge of illegal coordination of campaign activities originally brought by County Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant and former Legislator Timothy R. Hogues – both targets of caucus spending.
Though Pigeon contributed more than $100,000 of his own money to the effort, he once again noted that even the local commissioners never accused the fund of cooperating with individual candidates as alleged by Grant and Hogues. Instead, he said Ward and Mohr are concentrating major efforts on an error that occurred because Seneca Nation businessman Aaron Pierce mistakenly sent money directly to a local broadcast outlet for the commercials rather than to the caucus.
The mistake was eventually recognized and campaign finance reports were amended by Mazurek, he noted.
The board’s action occurs at a sensitive time, however, since Pigeon is considered a top local contact for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who seeks to improve his Western New York results this election year in a region he lost in 2010.
Grant and Hogues also filed complaints with the state’s Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which was appointed by Cuomo last year in a crackdown on political corruption. That panel never acknowledged their complaints.