Western New York

Judge Denies Maziarz’s Motions For Dismissal

An Albany County Court judge has denied two motions to dismiss the indictment of former state Senator George Maziarz. The longtime Niagara County powerbroker is facing political corruption charges; accused of using a third party to make unreported payments to a former campaign staffer.

“In this Court’s view, using a campaign committee as a conduit to make unreported third party payments undermines the integrity of the election process and is extremely serious,” Judge Peter Lynch wrote. “The ‘harm’ is the defendant’s alleged actions constitute a felony offense, and undermines the integrity of the political process.”

Maziarz’s attorneys argued the grand jury proceeding was defective because the prosecution did not properly identify accomplices in the case. The defense told Spectrum News in October it believed the prosecution did not present all relevant witness statements.

“The law in New York State is if there is information out there and if the prosecutor knows about it and if it might tend to induce a grand jury not to indict, that prosecutor is duty-bound to present that evidence to a grand jury and to appropriately instruct the grand jury as to its significance,”  attorney Joseph LaTona said.

Lynch ruled some of the witnesses could in fact be considered accomplices but a grand jury does not need to be instructed to the same degree of precision as a trial jury.

“We deem it sufficient if the District Attorney provides the Grand Jury with enough information to enable it intelligently to decide whether a crime has been committed and to determine whether there exists legally sufficient evidence to establish the material elements of the crime,” the judge wrote.

He also rejected the defense’s argument that an internal debate, between Board of Election officials about whether campaign filings for payments to a payroll company require the identification of the ultimate recipient, was a basis for dismissal. Lynch said it was of no significance because it was up to the Attorney General’s office to decide whether to move forward with prosecution after it was referred there.

The judge also said it was the opinion of the court that dismissing the case would adversely impact public confidence in the criminal justice system.

The trial is scheduled to start in February.

WNY Employers Want More Diverse Workplaces

From the Morning Memo:

Among a number of discoveries in its annual advocacy and membership survey, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership found an interesting trend for businesses in Buffalo. President Dottie Gallagher-Cohen said last year was the first time employers pointed to achieving a more diverse workforce as one of their top priorities. This year that number doubled.

“For once we’re ahead of the curve on something, and in Buffalo where we have had tremendous racial segregation over many, many decades, we’ve got a heavier lift than some communities in terms of fixing it,” Gallagher-Cohen said.

She said employers in Western New York want their workplaces to better reflect their customer bases, but they’ve indicated they’re struggling to figure out how to achieve that goal.

For instance, Gallagher-Cohen said, in the high-level professional service industries like accounting or law, even employers who are successful in recruiting minority candidates have trouble holding on to them.

“They’ll work really hard at recruiting a diverse candidate but they lose them after a year,” she said. “When you talk to people who have left companies like that, they say, ‘Well, the culture didn’t feel comfortable for me.'”

The Partnership sees this as an opportunity, rather than a problem. It is launching a diversity and inclusion council to help its members learn how to do a better job, not only in recruiting, but also in overhauling their respective cultures so employees feel more comfortable being themselves.

“I think it’s really the global economy,” Gallagher-Cohen said. “I think that there’s an absolute understanding that diverse teams are better teams, and quite frankly, to be able to attract more younger people in workplaces, younger people want to work with diverse people. It’s sort of a generational shift, and employers want to catch up.”

She said the effort could be part of the solution to another issue borne out in the survey: Western New York employers said that while a majority of them plan to hire, they are struggling to find qualified candidates for the open positions.

ESD Official Subject Of Sexual Harassment Investigation

A former high-ranking official with the state’s economic development arm is the subject of a pending sexual harassment investigation. The Governor’s Office confirmed the Joint Commission on Public Ethics is looking into a complaint regarding former Empire State Development Regional President Sam Hoyt.

According to a source, Hoyt had a consensual relationship with a state employee who did not work for ESD and did not report to him. The source said after the relationship “went south,” the accuser made a complaint to the state.

A spokesperson for the governor said the incident was initially referred to the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations and then to the Inspector General’s office. Press Secretary Dani Lever said all state employees must act with integrity and respect.

“The IG conducted its own investigation, during which repeated attempts to interview the complainant were unsuccessful and the matter was referred to JCOPE for investigation. With the investigation still pending, Mr. Hoyt separated from state service,” she said.

The Buffalo News first reported Hoyt’s abrupt resignation. In a statement Tuesday, he admitted the relationship, though consensual, was inappropriate and said it’s something he regretted.

“That said, what she has accused me of is categorically untrue,” Hoyt continued. “When I attempted to end the relationship she threatened me. At that point, over a year ago, my wife and I agreed to a settlement to avoid public embarrassment to our family. I am not certain why she has chosen to make these accusations today, but they are simply untrue.”

This is not the first time the well-known Western New York Democrat has run into a similar situation. As a state Assemblyman in the early-2000’s, Hoyt was found to have had an affair with a female intern.

He maintained his seat but was banned from having interns.

WNY Open Government Report: 97 Percent Of Executive Sessions Called Incorrectly

From the Morning Memo:

The Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government has released a somewhat eye-opening report regarding executive sessions in Western New York.

The non-partisan group which does its research primarily through the work of volunteers, studied meeting minutes of 16 municipal governments – eight from Erie County and eight from Niagara County – for six months starting at the beginning of this year.

What it found, was 97 percent of motions for executive sessions were made incorrectly. The coalition said the top three reasons the closed-door sessions were called were to “discuss litigation,” to “discuss a personnel matter,” and to “discuss a contract.”

In any of those cases, attorney Paul wolf said, the local governments were not being nearly specific enough.

“That’s not sufficient under the open meetings law. It’s not sufficient according to court decisions. It’s not sufficient according to opinions of the New York State Committee on Open Government,” Wolf said.

For instance, when it comes to discussing ongoing litigation, a government has to acknowledge what the legal matter is about. Furthermore, Wolf said, the right to discuss legal matters behind closed doors applies specifically and only to strategy.

“This should not be a game of clue where the public is trying to figure out, was it Professor Plum with the candlestick in the dining room. That’s not how this is supposed to work. You have a right to meet behind doors but the public has a right to know what you are discussing behind closed doors,” he said.

According to the report, the Town of Lewiston held the most executive sessions of the municipalities studied. Perhaps more troubling, the town of West Seneca spent 12.5 hours in executive session during the six month period and for five of its seven meetings, the executive session was longer than the public portion.

“We all knew from our own individual experiences that there were problems with motions for executive sessions. That’s why we took a look at this, though quite honestly, never expected to find 97 percent done incorrectly,” Wolf said.

The attorney commended roughly a third of the municipalities in the study that held no closed door meetings during the time of the study. He said they were typically the largest bodies, including the Erie County Legislature, Buffalo Common Council and Niagara Falls City Council

Attorney For WNYCPC Has Strong Words For Cuomo

From the Morning Memo:

Despite getting a victory in court earlier this week when a judge denied a motion to dismiss the case, the attorney for the coalition that wants to keep the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center in West Seneca had some harsh words for the governor.

The coalition argues that the state’s plans to move the facility to a shared site with the adult hospital in Buffalo amounts to closing it down, which they say the governor can’t do without legislative approval.

Attorney Steve Cohen said the state hasn’t even responded to the initial petition yet – a move he believes is designed to wear out the group’s financial resources.

“I have to anticipate appeals,” he said. “I think the governor wants to wear us out financially, because this is expensive and people are financing this litigation out of their own pockets.”

Cohen didn’t stop there, claiming Gov. Andrew Cuomo is threatening state employees, and even legislators, who might want to speak out against the move.

Democratic Assemblyman Mickey Kearns and Republican Sen. Pat Gallivan are leading the resistance, but Cohen said he believes other members of the Legislature would like to be more vocal – if only their fear of Cuomo wasn’t so strong.

“This governor has a lot of people scared,” he said. “There are members of the state Senate and the state Assembly who are frightened, who are saying: We’re getting some pressure from the governor now.”

In perhaps his most damning accusation against the governor, Cohen, both in court and following Wednesday’s proceedings, said he believes Cuomo wants to move what has been a successful and well-respected facility because he has plans for the land it sits on.

The attorney said he and others have tried to find out what those plans are, but are being stonewalled.

“What does Governor Cuomo want this land for?” Cohen asked. “What does he want to do with the beautiful park-like setting on which the Western New York CPC is located and the governor is mute. He doesn’t deflect. He just doesn’t respond to the question. He doesn’t say, well I haven’t thought about it. He knows what he wants to do.”

The governor’s office referred our request for a response to the state Office of Mental Health.

“We deal with facts, not conspiracy theories,” OMH spokesperson James Plastiris said. “Since the beginning of this process, OMH has been clear that relocation of WNYCPC will allow us to expand services to 1,000 additional children and families, increase coordination with local mental health systems, and provide opportunities for children to recover in a safe, secure and state-of-the art treatment setting. This is a win-win for the children and families of WNY.”

The Legislature did pass a bill to stop the children’s facility from moving, but it has yet to be delivered to the governor’s desk.


Buffalo And Rochester Teaming Up In Pursuit Of Amazon

The Rochester and Buffalo metro regions plan to submit a joint bid in the highly competitive process to secure Amazon’s second headquarters. For the past month, the economic development arms of both cities had been putting together separate packages.

In a joint statement, Invest Buffalo Niagara and Greater Rochester Enterprise said it was apparent by linking efforts they could offer a proposal that is “both compelling and extremely competitive.”

Amazon said the new headquarters would bring up to 50,000 high-paying jobs over the next ten to 15 years. The Request for Proposals included a list of company preferences, including that the metropolitan area have more than 1 million people.

Both the Rochester and Buffalo regions have a little more than a million people each, which would have made them among the smallest cities applying. By combining, the agencies said the corridor will include a population of 2.2 million, a talented workforce, livable communities, and existing organizations that are excited to help entice Amazon to the area.

“This collaboration demonstrates the undeniable connectivity that already exists between our two great communities,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said in a joint statement. “In addition to several excellent site options and a low-cost operating environment, we believe that it is our people, highly-skilled workforce, world-class colleges and universities, and strong regional competency in radio-frequency identification, sustainable packaging, flight controls, drone technology, high-performace computing, software development, and data analytics that will help our proposal stand out.”

In addition to potentially eliminating concerns about lack of population, the collaboration also solves a potential dilemma for statewide and federal elected leaders. Few were choosing sides as the two cities, roughly an hour apart on the thruway planned to compete against each other.

Empire State Development has encouraged any region that qualified, including Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, and New York City to participate and has promised the state’s tax incentive package would be largely the same across the state. The two economic agencies have a week to finish the joint proposal before the October 19 response deadline.

WNY Competes For Even More Economic Development Funding

From the Morning Memo:

Starting with the Buffalo Billion and now Phase II of the governor’s signature economic development initiative, the state has made Western New York a priority for roughly the past half a decade.

As a result, members of the local regional economic development team know securing even more funding could be a big ask.

“It is a little bit difficult for us to win this competition because we already won over a billion and a half dollars in state support for our strategic initiatives including this one, Buffalo Manufacturing Works, but I would say this team is very impressed by the turnaround they’ve seen in Western New York and Buffalo in particular,” WNY REDC co-chairman Jeff Belt said.

The team is striving to put its best foot forward when it comes to New York’s annual regional competition. Every year it puts together a report on its strategy, progress and project priorities for the coming year.

On Wednesday, team members toured a number of projects in order to highlight what has already been done. The five-county region is focusing on key industry sectors, including advanced manufacturing, agriculture, bi-national logistics, energy, health & life sciences, higher education, professional services and tourism.

The latest report proposed new state investment of at least $20 million dollars, which the team believes it could use to leverage another $75 million in private investment. They said it would create 195 new jobs, 748 indirect jobs, and retain 290 existing jobs.

“Through the stops on today’s tour, the WNYREDC was able to showcase the priority projects that fit well into the council’s core strategies,” said the other Co-Chair and President of the State University of New York at Fredonia, Dr. Virginia Horvath.

“Our progress report demonstrates how we are moving forward and how we will continue to do so on our path to prosperity. The collective support of the state and the region as a whole over the last seven years has been the key factor in making sure Western New York has a bright future.”

Officials said the governor is expected to make a decision on additional funding in December.


Pigeon Indicted By Federal Government In Connection To Alleged Bribery Scheme

The U.S. Attorney’s office has indicted Western New York political operative Steve Pigeon on eight counts including bribery and wire fraud. The allegations appear to be the same or similar as those in a state case currently in litigation.

More than a year ago, the state Attorney General’s office brought charges against Pigeon, alleging he exchanged a series of favors with a state Supreme Court justice. The judge, John Michalek, has already pleaded guilty and promised to cooperate with investigators in hopes of a lighter sentence.

This summer, the state’s case took a hit when a judge ruled email evidence used to build it was obtained illegally and should be suppressed moving forward. The Attorney General’s office is in the process of appealing that ruling but Pigeon’s attorney says if the state loses that appeal it would not be able to move forward with prosecution.

“I do know that it’s unusual. In fact, it’s the first time I can think of in recent history where a set of charges pending in state court have been duplicated in federal court and again I think it’s just, the plan is to try to get around what’s happened so far in the state side,” defense attorney Paul Cambria said. “We’ll see how that goes, lot’s of interesting legal issues there.”

The Attorney General’s office said it’s actually quite common for state and federal prosecutors to bring charges against a defendant simultaneously and in this case, both have been investigating Pigeon for years.

“We intend to vigorously pursue our prosecution and ultimately prevail,” AG spokesperson Amy Spitalnick said.

At the same time, the federal government moved to drop charges it leveled in the spring against Pigeon, alleging he solicited and coordinated a back-door donation from a foreign national to the reelection campaign of a candidate for statewide office. It was later confirmed that candidate was the governor.

“I never thought there was any basis for that. I said that repeatedly and today it’s been dismissed. We’ll see how that goes,” Cambria said.

He said the maximum sentence if the government is successful is 20 years and prison and a $250,000 fine but under federal sentencing guidelines it would likely be substantially less than that. Given the evidentiary issues in the state’s case the judge has scheduled a series of deadlines for discovery and response and Pigeon is scheduled to appear again on February 9.

“The detailed facts set forth in the indictment provide evidence not only of the charges contained therein but of the tremendous investigation conducted by agents from the Buffalo Division of the FBI together with their partners at the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the New York State Police,” said Acting U.S. Attorney James Kennedy.  “The indictment speaks for itself.”

Pigeon is also facing charges for violation of election law in state Supreme Court but Cambria said that case has appeared to stall while the Attorney General appeals the email ruling. We’ve reached out to the AG’s office for comment on Friday’s developments.


Pigeon Federal Indictment by Ryan Whalen on Scribd

Source: Pigeon Indictment To Be Unsealed

From the Morning Memo:

Western New York political operative Steve Pigeon is scheduled to appear in federal court this morning in Buffalo, where the government is expected to unseal an indictment against him, according to a source.

The U.S. attorney’s office had already filed a complaint in the spring, claiming Pigeon solicited and coordinated a donation from a foreign national to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-election campaign.

He was due back in court in August, but the judge granted a 60-day adjournment to, according to court documents, “afford the parties additional time to discuss a pre-indictment resolution of this case.”

Pigeon, meanwhile, is also facing a number of felony charges in state Supreme Court, but those cases may be in jeopardy of being dismissed. In June, a judge ruled email evidence should be suppressed moving forward because they were obtained illegally.

The state is in the process of appealing the decision.

Niagara County Leaders Plan Lobbying Trip For EMS

From the Morning Memo:

Several dozen Niagara County elected leaders and first responders are planning a last-second trip to Albany next Wednesday to lobby for a local not-for-profit ambulance service.

A spokesperson for the Niagara County Legislature said competitors of Mercy Emergency Medical Services took steps to block the final issuance of a Certificate of Need by the state.

The group plans to leave early next Wednesday morning from Lockport to let officials at the State Emergency Medical Service Council know how important the issue is to them.

“Almost every municipality wrote letters of support, every fire, police agency wrote support, and we still faced appeals,” said Jonathan Schultz, Niagara County Emergency Services director and fire coordinator. “So until we get through that vote on Wednesday, I’m nervous. We need this for our citizens.”

The group said it wants to ensure all areas of the county – particularly its many rural ares – have access to ambulance services.

Mercy Flight, which operates the emergency helicopter service in Western New York, started running ambulances in Genesee County in 2009, and has since expanded to parts of Erie and Niagara County.