That Pigeon Won’t Fly
by Geoff Kelly - posted 11:05 am, November 6, 2008
Here’s another example, this one two years old, of the way Steve Pigeon’s political committees are alleged to steer money to candidates illegally.
On September 15, 2006, the Pigeon-controlled PAC Citizens for Fiscal Integrity paid “RUR Strategy Group” $9,000 in consulting fees, according to CFI’s campaign finance disclosure forms.
That should be “RWR,” not “RUR,” and I’m told the check actually was issued September 6. But close enough. About the same time, the Committee to Elect Gary Parenti was paying RWR, too—a total of $42,000 in four installments between August 17 and September 1 of that year, for printing and mailing. Gary Parenti was running for State Assembly in the 138th District, challenging Democratic incumbent Francine DelMonte in the primary. The race was hot and lowdown, especially in the final month. Parenti lost.
CFI’s $9,000 almost certainly paid RWR for services rendered to Parenti’s campaign. “If CFI was paying RWR on Parenti’s behalf, and it seems highly unlikely it wasn’t, it would be an illegal contribution and fall under the felony section of the law,” said a source at the Erie County Board of Elections, who has been tracking the activities of the many committees Pigeon controls.
Parenti has long been close to Pigeon; both served on the staff of political consultants Byron Brown employed while a state senator. In 2004, Brown canned Pigeon as his chief aide; Parenti remained loyal to Pigeon and resigned from Brown’s staff. Brown was preparing to run for mayor of Buffalo at the time, and Pigeon’s reputation had become a liability. Discussing Pigeon’s firing with the Buffalo News, Brown said at the time, “Unfortunately, he has been unable to move beyond his attitudes toward those whom he believes have wronged him politically in the past…It was painfully obvious he just wasn’t a positive influence on my staff.”
Nor was he a positive influence as Democratic county chairman. His profligate spending drove the party into debt, and his heavy hand fomented internecine wars that made politics rather than policy the focus of local government for most of his tenure. That’s why Brown had to separate himself from Pigeon if he wanted to become mayor; major funders around here made it clear that Brown was welcome to the second floor of City Hall but Pigeon was not.
Brown and his chief political officer, First Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, have since reconciled with Pigeon, just as former Erie County executive Joel Giambra eventually reconciled with Pigeon, despite a rift so deep that it drove the ambitious Giambra to the GOP in order to seek political advancement. The patronage of Golisano, whose loyalty to Pigeon seems unassailable, has given him his strongest position yet.
Golisano shot back at at Erie County elections commissioners Ralph Mohr and Dennis Ward last week, and good for him: Mohr and Ward are anyone’s worst choice as enforcers of election law. Most years they don’t seem to give a damn about election law; neither do most elected officials, and neither does the state board of elections. So it’s difficult to take seriously Mohr’s noises about investigating Pigeon’s committees, including CFI and People for Accountable Government. On the issue of Responsible New York, the unauthorized committee that Golisano set up with $5 million and which Pigeon directs, Mohr and Ward are both fatally compromised: Mohr sought to cripple Joe Mesi, who was running what appeared to be a close race with Republican Mike Ranzenhofer for the 61st District State Senate seat. Ward’s brother, Dan, and his wife, Michele Iannello, both ran against Mesi in the Democratic primary for that seat, and Ward is allied with Len Lenihan, Pigeon’s successor as county chairman. There’s no love lost between the two.
Golisano is probably correct that Mohr and Ward were seeking political advantage. But that doesn’t mean Pigeon is clean, this election year or in past campaigns. And his association with Pigeon tarnishes Golisano’s good reputation, at least in Western New York.
The great mystery is why Pigeon is so valued as a political strategist and ally. His win-lose record is not great. Locally, in this last election cycle, the only winning candidates endorsed by Responsible New York were Bill Stachowski (for whom RNY did very little; he was rescued from the Delano insurgency by state Democrats) and folks like Mark Schroeder and Dennis Gabryszak and Antoine Thompson (who didn’t need any help). The local losers: Kavanaugh, Mesi—the challenging races in which Pigeon invested the most time and money. In the last month before the campaign, Responsible New York spread $1,000 donations to a slate of candidates statewide, which will have increased the committee’s total win-lose record. But Pigeon accomplished no change whatsoever in the local state delegation.
Pigeon also failed two years ago to unseat a number of Erie County legislators. His one-time protege, Anthony Nanula, who was once touted as a future governor of New York State, is out of politics. So is Greg Olma, of course; his ouster was Pigeon’s last great success. That was 2001, and it cost Pigeon $150,000 to drive Olma out of the county legislature. Was that a good deal?
In a couple weeks, when the next round of campaign disclosure forms is released, we’ll know exactly how much of Golisano’s $5 million Pigeon spent in the last three months and balance that against the committee’s goals and its accomplishments.