The background was somewhat typical of an upstate New York Supreme Court justice. District Attorney’s office, where he rose to some prominence as head of a bureau. Private practice in a small firm, where he handled what passes in the boondocks as high profile cases. John Michalek seemed destined for a decent career as a judge to cap off his decent career as a lawyer.
In 1985, after serving four years as chief of the Justice Courts Bureau, Michalek left the DA’s office and established a Hamburg law firm with two partners, Daniel J. Henry* and Robert M. Vallarini, who later would win election as an Erie County legislator. Michalek handled some criminal defense work with the law firm, and his most famous – or infamous – client was the late Richard W. Matt.
For the most part, he was well regarded as a fair, if conservative judge.
“I practiced before him on several different lawsuits, and I thought he was fair and very careful,” said Cosgrove, Michalek’s former boss. “As far as I am concerned, his past and present reputations are marvelous. I don’t know of anything contrary to that. I’d have to understand every part of what happened before I made any judgments on him.”
Not universally loved, but then, who is?
One local attorney, Arthur Giacalone,** said he had a bad experience with Michalek and felt he treated him and his client unfairly during a 2014 trial. But most attorneys and court officials interviewed by The News in recent weeks said Michalek had a solid reputation.
So when the investigation of Justice Michalek became public, it was shocking.
It was nearly a year ago when search warrants were executed at the homes of three high-level political operatives; Steve Casey (former Deputy Mayor of Buffalo), Chris Grant (then-Chief of Staff to Congressman Chris Collins) and former Erie County Democratic Committee Chairman Steve Pigeon.
Michalek had been questioned by investigators on whether or not Michalek asked Steve Pigeon for help landing a job for a relative, when at the same time a Pigeon associate had a multi-million-dollar case pending before the judge.
Carrie H. Cohen made her legal reputation prosecuting public corruption and building cases against people in high places who abused their positions.
As an assistant U.S. attorney, she led the criminal case against former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
While in the state Attorney General’s Office, she prosecuted former State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi, who used state employees to conduct personal business.
Now, she is on the other side of the table, as a defense attorney. And she is defending John A. Michalek, who pleaded guilty Wednesday to felony charges of bribery and filing a false instrument.
About twelve seconds out of the United States Attorneys office, and into a sweet office at Morrison Foerster, Carrie Cohen snagged a dirty judge. Great for Cohen, who just repaid her signing bonus, but what about Michalek?
Cohen negotiated Michalek’s plea agreement, which includes the stipulation that the state Attorney General’s Office will make no sentencing recommendation in the case if Michalek cooperates with its investigation into public corruption. At the center of the state probe is political operative G. Steven Pigeon, who is expected in court Thursday morning on other charges.
To break down the zealous representation provided Michalek, Prosecutor-yesterday Cohen managed to get a Supreme Court Justice a deal of
snitching cooperation with a promise of no sentencing recommendation. Well, them’s some mad criminal defense skillz, pulling off the deal of the century by flipping her judge into a rat for . . . nothing.
Steve Pigeon’s attorney, Paul Cambria, says Pigeon will be on [sic] court on Thursday and will “vehemently deny any wrong doing and we look forward to our day in court.”
See what he did there? Cambria will try this case and zealously defend his client. He may win. He may lose. What he won’t do is run to the prosecution the minute the retainer check clears to sign his client up as a snitch.
So what was it, that Cohen went Biglaw, where no one can ever win? That the only arrow in Cohen’s quiver was to use her prosecutor connections to lose as quickly as possible? To throw in the towel as quickly as possible, because that’s what a good prosecutor does?
In return for his guilty plea, the State Attorney General’s Office has asked Michalek to cooperate in their investigation against Pigeon. Attorney and legal analyst Steve Boyd says that could help Michalek avoid jail time.
Putting aside this deeply insightful bit of legal analysis, Cohen didn’t even manage to get a firm commitment that in exchange for the disgraced judge’s cooperation, he doesn’t go to jail.
But Cohen was the prosecutor who nailed Shelly Silver, so she must be good, right?
The Silver case garnered extra attention for Cohen. In a profile for “The American Lawyer,” Vivia Chen described her as a workaholic who still managed to make time for her family, “a bit of a wisecracker who exudes constant energy.”
Vivia has this thing about promoting women lawyers, without regard to much beyond their gender. Maybe Cohen was a wisecracker prosecutor. Maybe Cohen “exudes constant energy.” Cohen definitely won against Shelly Silver. And yet, Michalek would have done well to look elsewhere for his representation, because this is what comes of retaining a criminal defense lawyer fresh out of the United States Attorney’s office who can’t wait to lose.
As for Cambria’s client, it would be particularly ironic if he kicks butt on trial and beats the case. He chose a lawyer with the will to fight and the skill to win. And even if he doesn’t, he won’t have to live out his life with the ignominy of being not merely dirty, but a sniveling rat as well.
*Full disclosure 1: I’m old friends with Dan Henry, whom I’ve always known to be a great lawyer, decent human being and person of integrity.
***A judge is no longer entitled to his title when he is forced to resign after pleading guilty to a felony. Indeed, it’s the one time that being a former judge is a badge of disgrace.
H/T Kathleen Casey