How The Preetsmas Gang is Spending its Summer Vacation

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Note: The Attorney for the Brown Campaign spoke with me after this piece was published, and that update can be found here

We’re still waiting for the inevitable Preetsmas fallout. The statute of limitations for all of the alleged misdemeanors expires in the next month, so everyone expects something to happen shortly.

Although somewhat hobbled by a federal and state investigation into alleged campaign finance fraud and illegality, Steve Pigeon’s crew is still active in the Michele Brown for Family Court race. The endorsed Democratic candidate is Kelly Brinkworth.

The Buffalo News and Geoff Kelly in the Public have recounted the political oddballs helping Brown out, and the curious inflow and outflow of money regarding that campaign. Most notable was the $10,000 to Steve Casey’s LSA Strategies – a business carefully set up using a proxy Brooklyn address, perhaps to thwart or slow scrutiny into its ownership. It remains an open question whether this is the rumored company that Casey co-owns with Chris Collins’ Congressional Chief of Staff, Chris Grant.

Local political veteran Ken Kruly runs an excellent blog, and he looked into the Brown campaign’s campaign disclosures, noting this:

  • As of July 15th, Ms. Brown had $125,205 in her campaign account, more than the amount that Freedman ($64,791) and Brinkworth ($38,048) had combined.
  • Brown has raised nothing from individuals, corporations, other candidates, etc.
  • Brown loaned herself a total of $60,000 in three different loans.
  • Brown has also received a $100,000 loan from her husband, Eugene Cunningham.
  • The Brown campaign paid $10,000 to LSA Strategies LLC, the consulting firm operated by Steve Casey.  (Just wondering, is Chris Grant a partner in that firm?)
  • The Brown campaign paid $4,000 to political consultant Maurice Garner.
  • Grassroots of Buffalo was paid $750.
  • The Brown campaign paid $2,000 for petition circulation to Louis Turchiarelli, who has previously petitioned for at least one Pigeon-supported candidate in Niagara Falls, an effort that stirred some controversy.
  • The Brown campaign paid $5,568 to the committee of David Hartzell, Clarence Town Supervisor, for petition work.  Why is the campaign of the Republican town supervisor in the business or circulating petitions for other candidates?  Looking at the dollar amounts that were paid to “consultants” to the Hartzell committee, it looks like they turned a nice profit.  There are contribution limits that apply to various offices and it may be that $5,568 exceeds the legal limit that the Brown for Family Court committee may give to Hartzell’s committee.
  • The Brown campaign gave $1,500 to the committee supporting Christine Bove, a candidate for West Seneca supervisor in the upcoming Democratic primary.  Bove allies also circulated Brown petitions.  This one has an interesting twist.  Steve Casey is working on the redevelopment of the former Seneca Mall site in West Seneca and it would certainly be nice to have some connection to the town supervisor.  But the incumbent supervisor is Sheila Meegan, the daughter of Chris Walsh, and Walsh is Steve Pigeon’s mentor.  So the question is, why would Casey be working with an opponent of the Meegan-Walsh-Pigeon alliance?
  • Casey and Kristy Mazurek, of Pigeon’s WNY Progressive Caucus fame, carried petitions for Brown.
  • Pigeon ally Joe Makowski, who resigned his State Supreme Court seat in 2009 , is assisting in the management of the campaign, operating out of his law office.

The “payments” made by the Michele Brown campaign are indeed wrong on a number of levels:

1. You can’t “hire” a political committee to do work for you, since the very nature of a political committee under the IRS code exception is to keep the money going in and out  “tax free”. As soon as a political committee gets into the business of making money by being paid for circulating someone’s petitions, they have become a profit-making entity subject to state and federal taxation.  What Clarence Supervisor Hartzell is doing is “earning” money payable to his political committee without paying taxes on it. This is pretty basic, and not an obscure rule, so the Michelle Brown campaign is participating in a tax avoidance scheme. Since she has now stated that she paid the money for petitioning services, will she be sending the Hartzell political committee (and the Christina Bove committee in West Seneca) an IRS 1099 form, as a vendor? And will his committee start filing tax returns and pay income taxes on the money received? If not, that’s illegal.

2. The legal limit for “contributions” to the Hartzell campaign is about $1,000 for the primary race against Town Councilman Pat Casilio, and $1,000 if Hartzell makes it to November.  Brown’s campaign “contributed” – and he “accepted a contribution” – of over $6,000.  Seems like a pretty big faux pas on the part of such a business savvy town supervisor. The limits in West Seneca for the Bove “contributions” may be higher.

3. The Brown campaign has another problem. If she has listed these payments, under the sworn signature of her treasurer, as “contributions” made to two candidates’ political committees, judicial ethics rules prohibit such “contributions” generally, but makes an exception for the attendance at political parties as a part of “campaigning”.  The committee for a judicial candidate may purchase up to 2 tickets (@ $250/each) for attendance at such political events. Paying another political committee for petition labor doesn’t count, and any such contribution is illegal.

So, we have the same old crew running the same old racket, with Pigeon as boss and Casey as underboss. As always, the promise of money and patronage help them marshal a crew of soldiers, (who are, at best, ignorant), to break laws and ethical rules in order to funnel campaign cash into friends’ vendor businesses and buy an elected office. In this case, it’s comparatively small potatoes, since the Family Court judgeship doesn’t control a significant number of jobs. This amounts to an attempt to stay relevant even when under investigation.

But as set forth above, they seem to have an almost innate inability or unwillingness to follow the law and rules, prefering instead behavior so brazen, one could coin a new phrase, “political racketeering”. They’re taking a big risk, because there is an Attorney General and US Attorney who are aggressively pursuing violations of laws that had previously been subject to lackadaisical enforcement.

Unfortunately for western New York, our Erie County District Attorney is completely absent when it comes to prosecuting blatant, repeated violations of election law.

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