Does Cuomo's Favored AG Candidate Have Her Own Pedro Espada Problem?

It sounds like an exotic Sandra Lee recipe: pigeon and rice.

Lee is the Andrew Cuomo gal pal who took time off from her Food Network on-camera cooking duties to appear with him at his gubernatorial announcement and was famously asked by Roseanna Scotto recently on Fox Five when Andrew would "put a ring" on it.

The pigeon is Steve Pigeon, whose machinations in upstate politics have led to two current federal probes and a recent artful Buffalo News headline that blared: "Only One Way to Clean the Pigeon Cage."

The rice is Kathleen Rice, Cuomo's onetime-favored candidate to replace him as attorney general who appears to have gotten embarrassingly close to that Pigeon with a target on his back.

The suspicion in cynical corners is that Cuomo, who has his own ties to Pigeon through Independence Party patriarch Tom Golisano, may have helped put Rice and Pigeon on the same steamy plate. Cuomo already has the Indy line and he successfully pushed to keep the party's AG line vacant until September, creating an opportunity for Rice to get it if she wins the Democratic primary.

I got involved in this distant Buffalo drama, where Pigeon's name pops up every time you intersect the town and "scandal" on Google, because I heard him announce in a booming voice from the floor of the state Democratic convention in Rye a couple of weeks ago that he was casting a proxy vote for Rice. For me, it was as if a siren went off. I waited for him to leave the floor and rushed up. He confirmed that he was supporting Rice, and indeed he was seen with a Rice poster clutched in his hand.

Pigeon's latest public service is as a $150,000-a-year counsel to State Senator Pedro Espada, an assignment that began last year and quickly proved to be a magnet for prosecutors, yet Rice, the Nassau County District Attorney, was inexplicably drawn to him for reasons other than the ones that now have Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara salivating and sleuthing. By her own account, Rice met with Pigeon in search of support from Tom Golisano, the billionaire inventor of the Independence Party who owns the Buffalo Sabres hockey team and funneled $4.4 million in contributions to state pols in 2008 through a committee run by his sidekick Pigeon.

Rice's press office told the Voice that she and a campaign aide traveled in March to Florida, where three-time NY gubernatorial candidate Golisano moved in 2009 amid public spouting about how New York's hostile tax climate forced his departure.

Here's her campaign's statement:

"The District Attorney and staff member flew on a commercial airline using campaign funds. They flew alone, without Mr. Pigeon or Mr. Golisano. Once in Florida, the District Attorney and staff member attended a meeting that included Mr. Pigeon, serving as a representative and aide to Mr. Golisano. Mr. Pigeon was not and is not involved in the Rice campaign, either formally or informally. His attendance related solely to Mr. Golisano. The purpose of the meeting was to solicit the personal support of Mr. Golisano, a politically and civically-active former resident of Western New York. The meeting had nothing to do with the Independence Party line, nor did the meeting include talk regarding the Independence Party line. The District Attorney and staff member flew--again, unaccompanied and on a commercial airline--back to New York that same day."

This trip occurred shortly before WCBS reported in April that Bharara was investigating Espada and Pigeon, but by then, the influential role Pigeon played with one-man-crime-wave Espada had been widely published. So were his ties to Golisano, whom he served as director of Responsible New York, the seamy, multi-million-dollar political action committee bankrolled by the Rochester billionaire. The Buffalo papers were filled with stories about money-laundering charges against him that a former assistant district attorney charged had been politically buried by his boss. Cuomo had already been widely reported to be investigating Espada, the subject now of two searing civil suits filed by his office. And Governor Paterson had announced months earlier that he'd asked his chief counsel to look into criminal allegations involving Pigeon that have since been referred to Bharara. With all of these charges swirling around this Anything-But-A-Pigeon, Rice nonetheless trekked to Florida to meet him and his patron.

As hard as it is to imagine that her interest did not involve the Indy Party, it's possible. Golisano can throw gobs of money at a candidate, and Rice won't have to report what she's raised from him, or Pigeon, until a July filing by her finance committee. She has also reportedly disturbed Indy leaders with comments she made about the party, and would have to compete in September with Republican candidate Dan Donovan, who is backed by the party's current favorite billionaire, Mike Bloomberg. It's unclear what power Golisano still has with the party now that he's legally relocated to Florida, but Pigeon is still a hefty lifter for the Indies. Indeed, the Buffalo News reported in January that Frank MacKay, the chair of the State Independence Party, was openly saying that Pigeon "would call most Independence Party shots in upstate New York."

The common thread in March between Rice and Golisano was Cuomo, who has distanced himself a bit from her more recently but was quietly in her corner back in March (lately, he's also been touting two other candidates as well, Eric Dinallo and Sean Coffey). Golisano has made his fondness for Cuomo clear, appearing with him in Rochester last year to endorse a plan to pare down local governments across the state that Cuomo was championing. When Golisano was finished declaring Cuomo "one of the more creative and energetic" state officials, Cuomo added: "The State of New York is a better place because of Tom Golisano."

Pigeon himself was quoted a few months later as saying how "very excited" Golisano was about Cuomo. Pressed about his own status with Democrats, Pigeon, the former Erie County Democratic leader who'd split with the party to help orchestrate Espada's temporary swing to the Republicans last summer, appeared to be referring to Cuomo when he said then that "there will be bridges back to the Democratic Party" when "we have a gubernatorial race next year." Pigeon routinely denounced Cuomo's nemesis at the time, David Paterson.

I asked Pigeon in that convention interview if he'd talked to Cuomo about Rice. "I don't remember conversations with Andrew Cuomo about her," Pigeon said. I replied: "You mean you've had so many conversations with Andrew you can't recall the subject matter?" Said a smiling Pigeon: "I've had a few." The Cuomo campaign acknowledges that the AG has been talking to Pigeon, but insists he did not seek Pigeon's endorsement of Rice.

The intricate Cuomo family dance with Golisano dates back to 1994, when Golisano was seen as siphoning votes away from George Pataki, who narrowly defeated Cuomo's father, then three-term incumbent Mario Cuomo. He was poised to repeat the favor in 2002, when Andrew ran for governor the first time, but Cuomo's campaign then was so disastrous he withdrew before the Democratic primary. Indeed Bob Duffy, the out-of-nowhere Andrew Cuomo choice for lieutenant governor, was elected mayor of Golisano's hometown twice--both times on the Democratic line and that of Golisano's Independence Party. Is it possible that our governor-to-be cleared the Rice-to-Golisano flight for takeoff, winking and nodding on her way to the tarmac? His and Rice's campaigns say no.

Tracy Sefl, a spokeswoman for Rice, acknowledged that Rice met Pigeon a second time after the Florida trip--at dinner at the Buffalo Chop House. Sefl says that Congressman Brian Higgins put an event together at the restaurant and "invited 20 to 25 people and Pigeon was one of them." These were the only two times Rice and Pigeon have been on the same dish, insists Sefl, who describes the relationship as "unremarkable." Rice's emphasis on the fact that Pigeon is not "formally or informally" involved in her campaign is an apparent attempt to contrast her with Eric Schneiderman, one of her four opponents for AG. Schneiderman actually put another nefarious Espada counsel, Stanley Schlein, on his campaign payroll as his prime representative in convention negotiations. Rice steered clear of binding ties like that.

Without going into the tawdry details of the Pigeon conduct that federal prosecutors are examining, suffice it to say that he has been intimately connected for years with the ultimate GOP dirty tricks guru Roger Stone, who managed Golisano's 2002 gubernatorial campaign and has claimed credit for engineering everything from George Bush's Florida triumph in 2000 to Eliot Spitzer's downfall in 2008. Pigeon and Stone are virtually daily communicants, and when I approached Pigeon at the convention, my first question was whether he'd spoken to Stone.

Said Pigeon, apparently proud of his pipeline to the darkest side: "I did talk to Roger today."

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