Former state Senator Marc Panepinto accepted a plea deal Thursday in federal court in Buffalo, admitting to attempting an illegal cover-up after making unwanted sexual advances toward a staff member.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Panepinto and a young woman from his district office had traveled to New York City together to attend a fundraiser for him on January 7, 2016. After suggesting the two count donations together in her hotel room, he is said to have made a “series of unwanted, verbal, and physical sexual advances which were rebuffed by the staff member,” leaving and returning again to her room in the early morning hours. After returning to Buffalo together, the staff member resigned from her position.
The prosecution said an investigation into the matter was referred to the New York state Joint Commission on Public Ethics. It said Panepinto was concerned the JCOPE investigation would jeopardize his 2016 campaign for re-election so he directed a senior staff member to “offer her money and/or new employment if she refused to participate” with it.

After the staff member did not agree to a follow-up meeting regarding the offer, Panepinto held a press conference on March 15, 2016 at his law office and announced he would not seek re-election. At the time he said there were several reasons for his sudden decision including the health of his since-deceased law partner and concerns about potential outside income restrictions with the Legislature, as well as an unspecified staff turnover in his office.

“While the defendant’s behavior in the hotel room was bad, his efforts to cover-up that behavior constituted a federal crime,” U.S. Attorney James P. Kennedy said. “In behaving as he did, the defendant not only abused the trust of a young female staffer over whom he held a position of authority, but he also betrayed the trust of those he was elected to serve. Today’s plea makes clear that this Office will not allow elected officials who abuse their position for personal gain to escape justice.”

The charge carries a maximum penalty of up to one year in prison a $100,000 fine. JCOPE has not released a public report on the issue.