How The Preetsmas Gang is Spending its Summer Vacation


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.

Merry Preetsmas

Steve-PigeonOn the first day of Preetmas, my true love gave to me: a search warrant for Pigeon and Casey.

Thursday, May 28 at midday, state police and FBI agents executed search warrants at the homes of three prominent political figures: lobbyist Steve Pigeon, former Buffalo Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, and Representative Chris Collins’s chief of staff, Chris Grant.

All of this raises more questions than answers.

These raids seem to be the culmination of a two-year-long series of inquiries into the activities of Western New York Progressive Caucus, a campaign committee directed by Pigeon that was active in 2013 Erie County races. People in the know believe that the point of prosecutorial entry for all of this—in addition to the likelihood WNYPC bank records betray some skullduggery—has to do with improper PAC coordination with campaigns, and with possible phantom billings to campaigns. For instance, if you’re a politician and you have a huge warchest, you can’t spend that money for any non-political purpose. But what if you contracted with a printing shop to do palmcards or mailers, and money changes hands for work that’s never done? You send me a bill, I’ll pay the bill. The non-printing printer gets a kickback, the cash goes off into the ether, having been essentially laundered.

What other connections are there? Back in 2014, before the state took over the investigation, the county Board of Elections had subpoenaed several businesses that supplied the WNYPC, and some were less forthcoming than others. One in particular—Marketing Technologies—did not respond to a subpoena and the board had to move in Supreme Court to enforce it. At a hearing with Judge Troutman, a representative from Marketing Technologies claimed that he could not obey the subpoena for email records because they had been destroyed, but did provide invoices. In open court, he testified that his point of contact for the WNYPC mailers that his shop produced was Deputy Mayor Steve Casey. This was during a supposed “truce” between City Hall and Democratic HQ. Sources close to the county investigation reveal that David Pfaff’s name kept coming up in connection with mailers and the WNYPC’s BOE filings. Pfaff is now a staffer for Senator Panepinto, and one observer calls the effort to land Pfaff a job—any job—as “frantic”, raising questions about whether that frenzy had to do with placating a potential witness.

Go read this article about the Seneca Mall project, which seems to be at least part of the unifying thread with all of this WNYPC business. Now, why would the Syracuse-based developer of that West Seneca project, Scott Congel, need to engage the assistance and services of all of these politically connected people simply to build some sort of lifestyle center/shopping mall on a piece of derelict West Seneca property? Congel hired Steve Casey to run the project, Pigeon is a consultant, Golisano’s name was brought up when the site was suggested as a Bills stadium site—it doesn’t make any sense. One longtime political observer posits this explanation: Congel retaining Seneca Nation lobbyist Pigeon, and putting Casey on the payroll; getting Tim Kennedy re-elected as he battled Betty Jean Grant—why would that be necessary?

Moving the Buffalo Creek Casino to the I-90 mainline corridor.

In order to move the Buffalo Creek Casino to a more prominent spot along in West Seneca, you would need approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and you would ultimately need sign-off from the Mayor of Buffalo and the Governor of the State of New York. That’s where Casey and Pigeon come in; both have influence where it counts. If you wanted to move the casino, you need buy-in, obviously, from the Senecas themselves. Pigeon now lobbies for the Seneca Nation, and don’t forget that the Senecas invested heavily in Kennedy’s own re-election campaign. From 2011—2013, Tim Kennedy’s campaign has been the seventh largest recipient of Seneca Nation money: ($73,850), and the proposed Congel project is what was until very recently Kennedy’s district. Kennedy wrote a letter opposing the idea of a non-Indian Finger Lakes casino. Although the West Seneca site is no longer in Kennedy’s district, he does maintain a rather active political profile in that town, and is close to the supervisor, Sheila Meegan. Meegan is the daughter of Christopher Walsh, a former chair of the West Seneca Democratic Committee, and considered to be a political father figure to Steve Pigeon.

The financial bonanza of a project of this scope and size would be huge for everyone involved. This doesn’t, however, explain why Chris Grant’s house was also searched.

This should be somewhat contextualized, so here’s just a small taste of the history at play.

In 2008, Steve Pigeon set up a PAC as part of an effort to oust political foe Sam Hoyt from the state Assembly. The PAC spent tons of money mailing horrible things about Hoyt to voters—the material was so inflammatory that it ultimately backfired, causing voters to sympathize with Hoyt rather than revile him.

In 2009, Pigeon and his benefactor/client Tom Golisano set up the hilariously misnamed “Responsible New York”, which brought about a coup in the State Senate and elevated convicted criminals Pedro Espada and Hiram Monserratte’s to its leadership. In 2010, a similar coup was executed in the Erie County Legislature, handing a majority Democratic body over to Republican then-County Executive Chris Collins on a silver platter. It was that coup that helped propel Tim Kennedy to the state Senate.

In 2013, Pigeon and erstwhile political commentator Kristy Mazurek set up the WNY Progressive Caucus.  It was set up as a PAC—the election law doesn’t use that term, but as an unauthorized committee, the WNYPC could raise and spend money to donate to specific campaigns, but was not allowed to coordinate with them, or spend money on their behalf. I called it “AwfulPAC”. In early September 2013, just weeks before primary day, the WNYPC paid for thousands of pieces of literature to be mailed to voters, slamming legislative candidates backed by party headquarters—most notably Tim Hogues, Betty Jean Grant, Wynnie Fisher, and Lynn Dearmyer. For example, one piece of WNYPC lit slammed Hogues for being a “Republican” and promoted the candidacy of his challenger, Barbara Miller-Williams—a woman who quite literally conspired with Republicans to execute the aforementioned 2010 coup.

WNYPC’s disclosures were not complete.  WNYPC’s financial recordkeeping was so sloppy that it seemed to be hiding potential illegality. The bricklayer’s union barely had the $25,000 the WNYPC reported to have received from them, and did not itself report any such donation. The WNYPC reported that State Senator Tim Kennedy had donated $40,000 from a long-defunct campaign account. The head of that bricklayer’s union retired just a few months ago For a time, it showed the PAC to be in the red—a big no-no. Disclosures came in late, were inaccurate or misleading, in one instance showing a donation from a different, long-dormant Pigeon-associated PAC, Democratic Action. What was odd about that purported $9,000 donation from Democratic Action was that it did not disclose any outflow of money during the same 2013 cycle, and had most recently showed a fund balance of $2,400 and a concomitant “no activity” report with the Board of Elections.

In the Erie County Sheriff’s race, the WNYPC candidate Dick Dobson embarrassed Bert Dunn on primary night. Dunn decided to waste his money and run on a tailor-made third party line, unsuccessfully. WNYPC abandoned Dobson, however, during the general election. There was an unaccounted-for $20,000 that was paid to “Buying Time, LLC” for Dick Dobson ads, which was later claimed to have been a payment reportedly made by AJ Wholesalers directly to Buying Time on the WNYPC’s behalf.  

Buying Time is associated with Governor Andrew Cuomo. So associated, in fact, that the New York Times reported that it was sniffing around Buying Time that prompted Cuomo’s office to begin interfering with the work of the shortly-thereafter-disbanded Moreland Commission on Public Corruption

Aside from Barbara Miller-Williams, none of Pigeon’s and Mazurek’s legislative candidates won in September 2013, so she used Michael Caputo’s to smear Wynnie Fisher, who had defeated Mazurek’s candidate, Wes Moore.  Apparently, Fisher and her neighbors don’t get along, so a story was planted accusing Fisher of being crazy.

The problem was that the letter from Fisher’s neighbors that was the purported source of the story was sent to Wes Moore at an address in Lancaster. But Moore’s campaign committee was based in the Nanulas’ offices in Clarence. The Lancaster address was a house on Doris Avenue where Mazurek was living, and which also served as the mailing address for WNYPC. There was, on its face, a smoking gun of coordination. How and why would Wynnie Fisher’s neighbors decide to send a letter to an address for Wes Moore that didn’t exist in nature?

In late September 2013, Tim Hogues and Betty Jean Grant, with an assist from anti-Pigeon transparency advocate Mark Sacha, filed a formal complaint with the New York State Board of Elections, accusing Pigeon, Mazurek, and WNYPC of various illegalities and violations of campaign finance law. After the Erie County Board of Elections resolved to investigate the complaint, it was turned over to the state BOE, which in turn appears to have turned it over to the Attorney General’s office and State Police. Once an investigation such as this is put into the hands of people outside of Buffalo, you know that the threat of shenanigans is decreased exponentially. Police interviewed several people at the county legislature, as well as at least a couple of the headquarters-backed 2013 Democratic candidates for county legislature. Subpoenas. Search warrants. Forensic accountants. If even a small percentage of the rumors you’ve likely heard are true, the banking records should tell all.

Make no mistake: The news of these search warrants being executed measures a 10.0 on the political Richter scale. It also raises more questions than answers:

1. How far back does this go? Could it go as far back as the 2010 Pigeon-engineered Chris Collins coup of the county legislature? The 2008 effort against Hoyt?

2. How far out does this go? Does it implicate the bricklayer’s union? Tim Kennedy? This property abuts Conservative Party chairman Ralph Lorigo’s—could he be targeted? Was it Seneca money that Pigeon marshaled to fund the PAC? There’s a reason the Buffalo News’ article about this project was penned by Bob McCarthy and not someone on the business or development beat. Could this reach the Governor? The other two men in that room are already under arrest.

3. Chris Grant? Maybe has to do with the 2010 coup? The Buffalo News reports that Grant and Steve Casey operated a printing shop together, but my sources tell me Grant and Steve Casey started a consultancy business that had more to do with voter data gathering and analysis. It had also been rumored that Grant worked on the mayor’s campaign in 2013, which would have put him in constant contact with Casey. Indeed, Collins and Grant attended a Brown fundraiser in 2009. Did you catch Collins’ dismissal of Pigeon in the Buffalo News?

“Anyone in Western New York knows that Steve Pigeon has never been a financial supporter of my congressional campaigns,” the congressman said. “Steve is a political operative who has been active in Western New York politics for decades. I was certainly aware there has been an investigation of him ongoing for some time.”

I mean, Pigeon only helped engineer the coup that handed you the county legislature in 2010, but let’s pretend you never heard of the guy. Also: note the limitation to “congressional campaigns” and the glaring omission of state office campaigns.

4. Kristy Mazurek, who acted as the WNYPC’s treasurer: Was her home searched? If so, why wasn’t it reported? If not, why not? She’s reportedly retained Joel Daniels to represent her, and one doesn’t do that lightly. Certainly if there are questions about financial improprieties and improper collusion, she would be a prime target. Is she cooperating with law enforcement? Has she already turned everything over?

5. Who else is implicated, directly or indirectly? NYSUT’s Mike Deely? Senator Marc Panepinto? Mayor Byron Brown? Amherst Councilman Mark Manna? What other candidates with ties to Pigeon and the WNYPC are being targeted? What about Tom Golisano and Pyramid’s Scott Congel? When BAK USA took Golisano’s money, and the owners were photographed with Pigeon and Mazurek, I had flashbacks to this Soprano’s storyline, it seemed that seedy to me.

6. Just last weekend, the Buffalo News’ Bob McCarthy dutifully transcribed Steve Pigeon’s purported rationale for leaving his job with a local law firm, noting that he is now the chief lobbyist for the Seneca Nation of Indians. Remember the West Seneca parcel Steve Casey now manages for Scott Congel was once floated as a site for a new Bills stadium before renderings went out showing off an entire mixed-use community? For his part, Congel was in talks with Pigeon’s clients, the Senecas, about bringing a casino to one of his Rochester properties in mid-2013, during the WNYPC’s heyday.

No one’s been arrested, but three simultaneous raids of the homes of prominent political actors underscores the seriousness and wide scope of this investigation. For the first time, motivated, disinterested, and aggressive action is being taken on serious allegations surrounding campaign finance in western New York. The limited Erie County BOE investigation has morphed into something that calls for the intervention of state and federal law enforcement, and one has to imagine prosecutorial ducks are already in a row long before this sort of action is taken.

Could this be the beginning of a deep clean of Erie County politics? Hope and change never seemed so close.

Buffalo Buffalo Buffalo

Cuyahoga at Lake and Rail Buffalo NY

Cuyahoga at Lake and Rail Buffalo NY by tark9, on Flickr

1. Shorter Buffalo News piece on Deputy Mayor Steve Casey: he’s a dick who terrorizes staff and throws Democrats under the bus in favor of Chris Collins, but he’s the Mayor’s dick

2. The Buffalo News calls this Hochul ad misleading. How so? It doesn’t say Collins got rich off of Ingenious’ Balance Buddy. It says he makes more money by outsourcing the manufacturing in China rather than building the device in western New York.

Statement A:

Asked why Ingenious would contract with a manufacturer in China, Collins said that it would be too expensive to make the product in the United States. ’It would not be feasible to have that product made and packaged for $7 in the U.S.,’ Collins said. (Cannot link directly to Buffalo News story because of its wholly unusable web presence). 

Statement B: 

China manipulates its currency, steals intellectual property from American companies, subsidizes government-owned businesses that compete with firms in the United States and closes its markets to foreign products.

“It’s not OK,” he said.

If the trade inequities with China are removed, “those jobs come back,” Collins said.

That’s patently true – by Collins’ own admission – and not at all misleading. In fact, the Buffalo News’ “fact check” is misleading. Also – perhaps more egregiously – he conducted Ingenious business from the 16th floor of the Rath Building, and so badly screwed over the initial investors that they’ve sued him.  

3. If there’s one thing Donn Esmonde loves to do, he loves to pat himself on the back. He loves being the official organ of Buffalo’s development/preservationist intelligentsia. So, he twists and contorts to the conclusion that the Liberty Hound‘s success somehow prove that the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” scam is the best thing ever. What the Liberty Hound’s success – as well as the success of a lot of Canalside’s summertime programming – really establishes is that the waterfront will be a popular place if you give people something to do there. Lighter, quicker, cheaper didn’t give us Liberty Hound – that was a big project done with a state agency,  a partnership of two successful restaurateurs, a museum, and  an assist from big political players. Lighter, quicker, cheaper gave us the Fred Kent “placemaking” sideshow, the snack shack, and brightly colored Adirondack chairs. The ECHDC was bullied into doing it by a supposedly earnest man endlessly pushing solar-powered carousels who wasn’t so quick to disclose that his interests in the matter also involved how Canalside might affect the bar and restaurant business in Black Rock and Allentown.