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Louis Ciminelli defense attorney takes aim at credibility of government witness

Todd R. Howe, a lobbyist and wheeler-dealer with a shaky past and vast political connections in Albany and Washington, pleaded guilty Thursday to eight felony charges, including bribery, extortion, wire fraud and five years of tax evasion.

Almost immediately after Howe took his guilty plea in New York City, defense attorneys for Buffalo developer Louis P. Ciminelli began an intense investigation into his background, including his business dealings, a past bankruptcy and a previous criminal case where he also pleaded guilty.

Ciminelli attorney Daniel C. Oliverio said he expects Howe, 55, to be the chief government witness against his client and two other LPCiminelli executives in the Buffalo Billion fraud case.

“Todd Howe’s credibility is one of the primary foci of this case,” Oliverio told The Buffalo News. “If you carefully read this case, he is the guy who pulls the entire case together with regard to the Ciminelli defendants.”

Oliverio said Ciminelli’s legal team plans to raise “a lot of questions” about Howe’s credibility.

“He took a criminal plea, he’s looking for leniency. He’s taken a criminal plea in the past, and he owes money to everybody,” Oliverio said. “And he is the key element to this case if any of the allegations against Ciminelli are to be substantiated.”

As another legal strategy, defense lawyers are expected to raise arguments about a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a corruption conviction against Virginia’s former governor. In that case, the court said federal prosecutors showed that the ex-governor received numerous gifts – including a $20,000 Rolex watch – from the businessman but took no “official action” to help the man’s business.

[Key excerpts from the criminal complaint about Buffalo developer Lou Ciminelli]

In what a federal prosecutor described as a $750 million fraud and bribery case, Ciminelli and two of his company’s top executives, Kevin C. Schuler and Michael W. Laipple, were arrested at their homes early Thursday morning. After being detained for several hours by agents from the FBI’s Buffalo office, the three men appeared in Buffalo’s federal court. Attorneys for all three said their clients are not guilty.

According to court papers, the LPCiminelli executives hired Howe – a lobbyist with close ties to the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – to work with state officials to “rig” the bidding process and make sure the Ciminelli firm would be selected to build a massive factory at the RiverBend site in South Buffalo. The RiverBend site is where SolarCity Corp., a California company, has committed to hire nearly 1,500 people to operate the largest solar panel manufacturing firm in the Western Hemisphere.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of New York City described the alleged Buffalo Billion bribery scheme and two other bribery schemes alleged in the complaint as something out of the old mobster television show “The Sopranos.”

“Hundreds of thousands” of dollars in bribes were exchanged for “hundreds of millions” of dollars in state contracts, Bhahara said. Bids that were supposed to give all companies a fair chance to bid on contracts were “secretly tailored” to help LPCiminelli and other companies, the prosecutor said.

[Ciminelli corruption probe a shock for BPO]

Ciminelli’s lawyer had harsh words for Howe, saying LP Ciminelli hired him as a consultant but never told or authorized him to commit any criminal activities in the company’s behalf. He said that, in his view, the prosecution’s case against the LP Ciminelli defendants rests largely on Howe’s claims that he was hired to commit illegal acts for the company.

According to a story published in May by the New York Times, Howe is a former Cuomo aide with close ties to the governor’s office. But the newspaper said Howe has a “history of chaotic and slipshod financial dealings,” including a 2003 bankruptcy and nearly $400,000 in federal tax liens and other judgements against him. Those dealings included a bogus bank deposit for $45,000 that led to Howe pleading guilty in 2009 to a felony theft charge.

Oliverio was not the only defense attorney criticizing Howe on Thursday. Barry A. Bohrer, an attorney for Joseph Percoco, a long-time Cuomo aide and confidante who was also charged, issued a statement claiming that Bhahara’s case is “based on information provided by someone of utterly unreliable credibility.” Bohrer told The News his statement was a reference to Howe.
Howe’s attorney, Richard J. Morvillo, told reporters in New York City that Howe has “accepted responsibility for his actions and will testify truthfully” if called as a witness. Bhahara confirmed that Howe is cooperating with prosecutors.

“I am sure that” Howe’s “credibility will be put to the test,” said Buffalo defense attorney Rodney O. Personius, a former federal prosecutor who has been watching the case closely. “The defense will be researching his background quite closely. If this is an individual who, in the past, has put his personal interests above others and those of society, that will be brought out at trial.”

[Frank Ciminelli II on pay-to-play charges: "We are confident everyone will be vindicated"]

Another possible defense strategy could involve a controversial Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year that forced federal prosecutors to drop their government corruption case against Virginia’s former governor, Bob McDonnell and his wife. McDonnell had been convicted of accepting more that $160,000 in gifts and loans – including a Rolex watch and plane trips – from a businessman who wanted McDonnell’s help in promoting a dietary supplement.

In overturning McDonnell’s conviction, Supreme Court judges said that, although prosecutors showed that McDonnell set up meetings between the businessman and state officials, they did not prove that the governor took any “official action” that was illegal.

“You have to prove that a public official did more than set up meetings. It’s one thing to accept gifts and loans, but the Supreme Court said the prosecution had to prove that the governor took actual official acts in exchange for bribes,” Personius said. “Potentially, the Virginia case could have some application” to the LP Ciminelli case.

Oliverio said he is closely researching the McDonnell case as he prepares Ciminelli’s defense. “Bribery and honest services fraud are complex charges and we will explor in depth all the facts surrounding this case,” he said.

Bhahara was asked about the McDonnell case at his press conference. He said he was well aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling and is confident that the charges filed on Thursday are “outside the scope” of the Supreme Court decision.

Oliverio asked that people in Buffalo withhold their judgement of his client and his two colleagues until all the evidence has been heard.

“I’d ask people to also consider that Lou Ciminelli is one of the biggest proponents of Buffalo you will ever see,” Oliverio said. “He’s given literally millions of dollars to the Philharmonic, the art gallery and other charities. I’d also point out that his company built a 1.2-million square foot building under one roof at RiverBend, one of the biggest factories ever built in the United States. They built it on time and on budget. People need to consider that, too.”



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