The Pigeon hunt in Western New York continues, and it’s increasingly clear investigators are off target. In fact, it looks like New York’s Attorney General has dragged Republican operative Chris Grant into his vendetta against Cuomo confidant Steve Pigeon - and for no good reason.
That brings up several questions many are afraid to ask. So, what the Hell: I’m asking.
First, let me also tell you this: I’ve tangled with Grant. He’s not my drinking buddy; I owe him nothing. But after three decades in the political arena, you learn to respect high quality talent, even if they beat you. Twice. And you learn to like them.
And another thing: If Democrats and Republicans working together is a red flag, then investigate every lobbying shop in every state capital and Washington, because partisans have united in the business of politics since the days of The Gipper. Pretending that Grant and Casey's cross-aisle relationship tipped law enforcement to investigate them is pure bovine excrement.
Let's just call it what it is: An excuse to put pressure on Pigeon through his associates. See? Was that so hard, General Schneiderman?
Grant is Western New York’s premier political direct mail consultant. He is probably the best in the state, and he’s breaking into the ranks of the best in America. He’s done it here at home for nearly a decade; in recent years he’s sold his services to faraway candidates. I’ve been in this game awhile and I can’t name anyone better than Grant. And, as Rep. Chris Collins’ chief of staff, he’s permitted to consult within limits he has followed.
So right off the bat, I’ve got a question: Does Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have any idea how campaign advertising works? For a guy who’s been elected to the State Senate six times and as Attorney General twice, his team certainly appears to know nothing about direct mail.
Even in the age of the Internet, the business of delivering clever, colorful and compelling election flyers to your mailbox is still the most effective way to earn votes – especially in state, county and local races. Anyone with real political experience will tell you: TV, radio, newspaper, and direct mail advertising consultants are almost always paid commissions. If you are good, you can earn up to 17 percent. Sometimes, that’s paid by the candidate. Sometimes by the party, or by a political committee. In direct mail, it’s often paid by the printer.
And when a vendor pays the commission, state election law isn’t clear on how to publicly disclose this information – or who is supposed to do it.
As a politician – not a prosecutor, by any stretch of the imagination – Schneiderman should know this. At the very least, some of the politicos around him should have reminded him. But somehow it’s these commissions he was looking for when he sent FBI agents and State Police officers to Grant’s home on Thursday, May 28.
State election law requires that second-party payments be itemized if they are over $5,000. The News could not find evidence of any political campaign in New York State filing such reports.
The News couldn't find any New York State campaign vendor commission payment filings for good reason: Nobody does it. Why? Despite The News' apparent certainty of what the law requires, expressed without a qualified legal opinion, most New York State election law experts will tell you the law on vendor payment disclosure is unclear. Only The News thinks it isn't - and in the story they actually refer to a regulation on reporting requirements (§6200.8), not "State election law".
But somehow, that's what they insinuate Chris Grant's infraction is in this mess. This is despite the fact that, even if he did get paid, it's highly unlikely that he made $5,000 off any one mailer. In fact, it was most certainly much less than the legal limit.
But, really, The News’ story isn’t all that bad. It looks like they thought they had the goods on Grant and Casey, then their research went south on them. They found out how direct mail experts are paid, they found out how much the best in the business often charge – and then they found out something else entirely.
At the very end of The News’ lengthy Sunday story, buried in the last few inches of the epic narrative, we find out The Buffalo News is in the campaign mailing business, too – with Chris Grant:
One of the companies HERD Solutions [Grant’s consulting company] often hired to print literature that Grant designed, according to his attorney, was TBN, a subsidiary of The Buffalo News.
"Herd Solutions is proud of the work it has done with printing vendors all over the country, including paying nearly $300,000 to The Buffalo News internal direct mail house," Eoannou said.
The direct mail revenues from TBN go to the same company as the newspaper; the director is Warren Todd Colville, the son of the newspaper's publisher, Warren Colville. The mail business is important revenue that helps keep the news side afloat. And they do a damn good job with mail - I've used them, too, and highly recommend them.
Considering how much mail Grant has created in his young life - “more than 100 individual pieces and 10 million overall pieces of mail for races throughout the country,” according to his LinkedIn profile – I’m willing to bet far more than $300,000 went through The Buffalo News mail division. That’s probably just the mail they directly printed for him, so I'm guessing he steered more than twice that to TBN via candidate and political committee clients - call it $650,000.
But somehow, neither Colville made an appearance in their newspaper's spider web graphic. Two other political printers did.
So, here's my second question: Has The Buffalo News political mail division ever paid a commission to a mail designer? They've never filed it if they did, because as they said in Sunday’s story: Nobody has ever filed that kind of campaign disclosure in New York.
Which leads me right into my third question: Was Grant really paid anything at all by WNY Progressive Caucus, the Pigeon-inspired political committee under Attorney General Clouseau’s magnifying glass? Only The News' anonymous sources - read that as partisans - allege a political mail printer paid Casey and Grant. Nobody is quoted by name. They have no documents. Nothing. Nada.
Meanwhile, a wholly political Attorney General has turned his hounds loose to investigate a political tactic - direct mail - which he has employed many times. I promise you, if one examines the many millions of mailers sent on behalf of Eric Schneiderman to get him elected eight times, you will find the exact same setup, because it is standard practice.
Which begs my fourth question: Did Schneiderman ever pay a direct mail commission in his campaigns? What about the printers he used – did they ever pay a designer?
If you ask me, Schneiderman is after Pigeon because he hates him, and for a specific reason: Western New York’s favorite bad boy pol engineered the storied coup which tossed the former State Senator out of leadership. In June 2009, Democrats controlled the Senate with a 32-30 majority. Leader Malcolm Smith was basically brain dead, so real leadership often fell to Schneiderman. When a bipartisan coalition engineered by Pigeon voted them out, Schneiderman blew his stack.
I’ve had different sources confirm an encounter shortly after the coup in the parking lot of an Albany Downtown/Medical Center area hotel where Schneiderman screamed at Pigeon: “I’ll destroy you if it’s the last thing I do!”
But the Attorney General isn’t just vengeful, he’s also got aspirations: He wants to be governor of New York. But besides a few busts of low hanging pols in the nation’s most corrupt state capital, he's been ineffectual as our top cop. He’s likely desperate for some kind of corruption bust - and who better to hunt than Pigeon, a close ally of his other sworn enemy, Governor Andrew Cuomo?
It's important not to forget that until US Attorney Preet Bharara burst on the Albany scene in 2014, many insiders believed "Schneiderman should be investigated, for leading possibly the most politicized law-enforcement outfit in the country."
Which brings me to my fifth question: Will Schneiderman investigate all New York political campaigns, or just the ones that suit him? Most competitive campaigns use vendors who pay out commissions to designers, broadcast time buyers and other consultants. If he's in it for real, he will be very busy probing thousands of campaigns because this has been standard electoral practice since the days of the Pony Express. So why not start with his own campaigns?
If our Attorney General wasn’t so hot to put his mark on a corruption bust, any corruption bust, in the midst of Bharara's Albany mop-up, perhaps investigators wouldn’t today regret executing the Grant search warrant. They could have just asked, for God’s sake. But they didn't; the AG trumped up probable cause and called the press instead.
Here's my take: Grant was improperly targeted and stands accused of conducting business like every other political mail vendor in New York State - every other mail vendor in America. His home was raided for no good reason.
All of this sets up my final question: Who gives Chris Grant his reputation back after Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's grandstand play? Will the Buffalo News run another three-page story, this one entitled “Wrongfully Accused, Grant’s on a Comeback”? Will Schneiderman come into town for another press conference, highlighting Grant’s innocence?
Don’t count on it. Some questions never get answered.