Eric Schneiderman for Attorney General

Buffalo jurist pleads guilty to bribery

June 30, 2016

As published in The Times Union on June 29, 2016.

A state Supreme Court justice pleaded guilty Wednesday to taking a bribe from Western New York attorney and political operative Steve Pigeon, who worked for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 re-election effort.

John Michalek, 65, an Albany Law School graduate first elected to state Supreme Court in 1994, pleaded guilty in a Buffalo courtroom to accepting a bribe and filing a false instrument. His sentencing is set for Sept. 21.

The Buffalo News reported Michalek faces a prison term of up to seven years. Michalek told the court he was resigning from his $193,000-a-year judgeship. He also agreed to cooperate as a witness against Pigeon, the News reported.

Sources familiar with the case said Pigeon is expected to be in court Thursday morning.

In a statement, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the probe exposed “a corrupt, multiyear scheme to use political favors to buy off a sitting state judge.”

Schneiderman’s office as well as federal authorities have been investigating Pigeon and several of his political associates for more than a year. U.S. Attorney for the Western District William Hochul, husband of Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, has recused himself from the investigation due to Cuomo’s ties to Pigeon.

The complaint against Michalek details a relationship that allegedly included the illicit exchange of gifts professional and personal between the two men during a three-year period in which Pigeon was serving as a consultant for several clients with lawsuits moving through Michalek’s court.

According to emails obtained by investigators, Michalek accepted Pigeon’s assistance in searching for employment for two of the judge’s close relatives, one of whom also sought an appointed position. Neither relative is named in the complaint.

In December 2012, the judge asked Pigeon to help him win a seat on the state Appellate Division, posts that are appointed by Cuomo. Michalek wrote, “Normally I wouldn’t mention it to you … wonder if you could help.”

Pigeon replied, “I will start talking u up …. ”

A month later, Michalek wrote to Pigeon, “Unc Steve… How’d you do with the Gov???? … ”

Pigeon responded hours later: “Bunch happening… In Albany now … Gov went well … Talked u up. … Let’s have coffee soon.”

The judge never landed the job. “Appointees for any state appellate court must first be reviewed and approved by the judicial screening committee,” said Cuomo spokesman John Kelly. “Mr. Michalek’s name was never advanced by the committee to the governor for consideration for any appointment.”

Pigeon also provided Michalek with tickets to Buffalo Sabres games and a political fundraiser, the complaint said. A source close to the investigation said the political event was a November 2013 fundraiser for the governor.