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Pay-to-play probe, BTF contract among 2016's top local stories

Several big local stories captured our attention in 2016, and some had statewide and national connections. Others were tragic circumstances.

But amid all the serious stuff, one event may stand as the most curiously memorable – the giant rubber duck that floated by Canalside.

One of the most biggest stories of the year – one that is continuing -- involved allegations that a prominent Buffalo developer engaged in bribes and bid rigging to win the $900 million SolarCity plant project.

SolarCity itself was part of another big local story, a positive one: the revival of industry here, along with Sumitomo Rubber, General Motors and General Mills.

Rounding out the other top 10 stories were the continuing tragedy of the opioid epidemic, a new contract for Buffalo school teachers after a School Board election that upset the previous majority, a presidential election with local figures playing key roles, a stunning donation to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the prosecution of a hit-and-run accident in Evans, Key Bank shaking up the banking business by buying First Niagara, and two massive fires that raised health and safety concerns.

Here are the top local stories as selected by Buffalo News reporters and editors:

Corruption crackdown

G. Steven Pigeon, right, arrives in State Supreme Court to face corruption charges with attorney Paul Cambria. (Buffalo News file photo)

Boom. That was the feeling Dec. 1 when eight defendants, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s longtime friend Joseph Percoco and Buffalo businessman Louis Ciminelli, pleaded not guilty in federal court in Manhattan to a range of corruption charges.

Corruption crackdown was the big story of the year. And it wasn’t just the federal charges of bid-rigging across the state.

G. Steven Pigeon, one of upstate New York’s most powerful political operatives, was arraigned in June on charges including bribery and extortion. He pleaded not guilty. But former State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek admitted taking a bribe in the state attorney general’s case against Pigeon.

Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the State Assembly, and Dean Skelos, the former State Senate majority leader were convicted and sentenced to political corruption charges in federal court. Silver was sentenced to 12 years in prison for tapping into his influence over state government to personally enrich himself. Skelos was sentenced to five years in prison on federal corruption charges.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara investigation of pay-to-play schemes across the state was unveiled in April when indictments were handed up against eight individuals, including Ciminelli and two other LPCiminelli executives, Michael Laipple and Kevin Schuler. They were accused of bid-rigging in obtaining the state contract to build the huge SolarCity plant at RiverBend.

Bharara’s probe also targeted others around the state, including a Syracuse developer and Dr. Alain Kaloyeros, the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute and the governor’s point person on several major upstate projects.

All have pleaded not guilty.

Industrial rebirth

When you see big money invested in manufacturing, you know Buffalo might have its mojo working again. Let’s summarize what happened this year:

A new Falken tire comes off the curing line at the Sumitomo Rubber USA tire manufacturing plant in Tonawanda. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

General Motors Corp. revealed plans to invest $328 million in two Buffalo Niagara factories, including $296 million in its Town of Tonawanda plant for a new engine line. That means retaining 854 jobs and creating 67 new jobs. At the Lockport plant, GM will invest $32 million for new components production. That project will retain 320 jobs, including 13 salaried positions.

Meanwhile, Sumitomo Rubber said it will invest $87 million in its 93-year-old tire factory in the Town of Tonawanda that will expand its product line and reduce its operating costs.
General Mills said it would spend $25 million to shift production of its Corn Chex and Honey Nut Chex cereals to its Buffalo plant. The South Michigan Avenue factory, the company’s oldest cereal facility, beat out four other, more modern General Mills plans to win the new cereal lines.

And construction was completed on the SolarCity’s mammoth new factory that is set to open in 2017 at RiverBend.

The opioid epidemic rages

The opioid epidemic escalated in 2016, with a big spike in deaths in December.

The county is likely to end the year with 357 confirmed or suspected opioid related deaths for the year, That compares with 256 deaths in 2015 and 128 the year before that.

County health officials reported 42 suspected opioid deaths for December, with six on just one day - Dec. 27.

There were some signs of hope.

The county rolled out a 24-hour Addiction Hotline that can immediately connect residents with addiction treatment services, and thousands of people the past year received Narcan training to revive those on the verge of overdose deaths.

A major medical crisis was averted, as well, when a physician stepped in to ensure Dr. Eugene Gosy’s big pain management practice remained open.

Dr. James Hitt began working as medical director earlier in 2016 in an attempt to reorganize a private practice in Amherst rocked by Gosy’s indictment on federal charges of issuing illegal prescriptions and cheating the state workers’ compensation system. The indictment led to the temporary closure of the office, leaving 9,500 patients without their pain doctor, many dependent on or addicted to narcotic painkillers.

Nationally, prescription opioids and heroin killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any year on record, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Buffalo schools

Buffalo Teachers wait in line Oct. 17 to enter Kleinhans Music Hall for a vote on a proposed contract. The previous contract had expired 12 years ago. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Two big events shook the Buffalo schools this year. One was the new contract after years of stalemate.

There may be never-ending debate about which side conceded more when the Buffalo teachers union and the school district reached agreement on a new contract in October. But a News editorial characterized the settlement this way: “Satisfactory contract deal required teachers and school district to each give a little.”

The agreement marked the end of negotiations to replace a teacher contract that expired 12 years ago - the longest contract stalemate in the history of public sector collective bargaining in New York, according to the New York State United Teachers, the parent union of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

Teachers received a 10 percent raise and additional increases of 2 percent in each of the next two years. But they gave up fully paid health insurance by agreeing to pay flat amounts toward their health coverage. Teachers also give up an elective cosmetic surgery rider, saving the district about $5 million. In addition, both the school year and school day will be lengthened.

The second big development in schools was the School Board election in May, when a power shift occurred on the board. The newcomers were more sympathetic to the union. Members of the former board majority unsuccessfully pushed for a contract that included significant work rule changes for teachers, such as allowing principals the freedom to hire teachers based on merit, not the seniority preferences maintained in the new contract.

Prosecution in Evans fatal hit-and-run

Evans Police Chief Ernest Masulo hugs Charlotte Moss, mother of Barry Moss, after a June 21 news conference at Evans Town Hall. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

It took nearly three years of perseverance, but Evans police found a district attorney willing to prosecute Gabriele P. Ballowe in the fatal hit-and-run incident in December 2013.

Ballowe pleaded guilty in October to leaving the scene of an injury incident without reporting it. There had been a time when it looked like the death of Barry T. “Bob” Moss would never see justice.

In 2014, a grand jury first voted to indict Ballowe, but then-District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III sent an underling to talk to the jurors and asked them to reconsider. The grand jurors voted not to indict.

Evans police were unhappy with that decision, as was Moss’ family.

Ballowe steadfastly refused to talk to investigators, although she eventually settled a wrongful death civil lawsuit with the family without admitting guilt. Then in January, the case was reopened by Michael J. Flaherty Jr. when he took over the DA’s Office.

Ballowe was arrested in June after being indicted on charges of first and second-degree vehicular manslaughter and leaving the scene of an incident. Moss’ family approved the plea. She was sentenced to one year in jail.

Local connections in national campaign

Rep. Chris Collins waves to the crowd gathered for an appearance by Donald Trump on the eve of the New York presidential primary in April. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

Republican officials who bet early and big on Donald J. Trump find themselves in a good spot these days, starting with Carl P. Paladino.

The Buffalo developer and 2010 GOP candidate for governor has a close relationship with the new president. Paladino stood at Trump’s side in the lobby of Trump Tower on the night Trump won the New York primary. He also served as co-chairman of the candidate’s New York campaign throughout the primary and general elections.

Then there’s Rep. Chris Collins. The Clarence Republican was the first member of Congress to back Trump and has been named congressional liaison to the Trump transition team.
Trump’s transition team also recruited Erie County Republican Chairman Nicholas A. Langworthy to serve on the transition Executive Committee, which includes Eric Trump, Don Trump, Ivanka Trump and top advisors Reince Priebus and Stephen K. Bannon.

Also, Michael R. Caputo, an East Aurora political consultant who resigned from the Trump campaign after tweeting his displeasure over the firing of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. He has kept close ties with Trump insiders.

A huge donation for art gallery

Jeffery Gundlach has pledged $42.5 million for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jeffrey Gundlach, a Western New York native and billionaire financier, in September pledged $42.5 million to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, a donation that helped the museum raise more than $100 million for its expansion project.

The commitment from the Los Angeles-based CEO of DoubleLine Capital is likely the largest single private donation to a cultural institution ever in the region.

In honor of the gift, the Albright-Knox board voted to change the gallery’s name to the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum, or the Buffalo AKG Art Museum for short, upon its completion.

Gundlach is an an avid art collector who characterized his gift as an attempt to ride “the tailwind of civic pride” sweeping Buffalo after decades of disappointment and decline. And a nice touch -- he also said he did it for his mom, who still lives in the modest Amherst home where he grew up

His gift was set up to encourage $30 million in private donations from largely local sources, which triggered his own contribution of $30 million. Gundlach also promised to contribute another $12.5 million if the gallery could line up $20 million in government funding from state and local sources.
OMA, a global architecture firm, won a competition to construct the gallery’s first major expansion since its Gordon Bunshaft-designed addition opened in 1962.

Big acquisition shakes up local banking

KeyCorp acquired First Niagara Financial Group in a blockbuster deal valued at nearly $4 billion that, initially, raised concerns among employees and customers while transforming the Western New York banking landscape.

The purchase moved Key into the No. 2 spot in the region, as measured by deposit market share, behind market leader M&T Bank Corp. The acquisition also spelled the end of First Niagara as an independent bank. The local bank had grown through a series of acquisitions, but couldn’t capitalize enough on those purchases to satisfy investors.

Key designated Larkinville as its Northeast regional headquarters and says the Buffalo Niagara region will figure prominently into its growth plans.

The bank moved ahead with plans to close or convert dozens of branches, but pledged to not lay off branch employees and to keep statewide job cuts to no more than 250, easing worries about significant job losses. Key also agreed to add at least 500 to 600 jobs in New York State in the next three years, and likely add 300 to 400 jobs in the two years after that.
Key had estimated cost savings of about $400 million stemming from the First Niagara acquisition, which shareholders of the companies approved in March.

Two big fires

Lackawanna fire companies and a host of others battle a fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site along Route 5 on Nov. 9, 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

In Lockport, a huge fire in August at the HTI Recycling property on Stevens Street burned for several days and spread smoke throughout the area. A 14-year-old in the recycling complex when the fire started died.

The fire spread to other buildings and caused an estimated $5.25 million in damage, making it the biggest fire in Lockport history. It also forced many nearby residents out of their homes when police and fire officials ordered evacuations. Another 14-year-old who was in the building has been charged with setting the fire.

In Lackawanna, a fire in November burned for days in the former Bethlehem Steel building, sending plumes of dark, sooty smoke into the surrounding neighborhood.
The health effects remain a concern among hundreds of residents.

The fire was fueled by recycled plastics, boats, antique vehicles and other items in winter storage in the 1 million square-foot building, which is owned by Great Lakes Industrial Development. The company agreed to pay for some affected residents’ cleanup claims and additional analyses of the surface soot and ash that spewed from the blaze, state officials told The News.

As of early December, the cause of the fire remained under investigation.

People really like big rubber ducks

A kayaker passes the world's largest rubber duck as it floats in the Buffalo River near Canalside on Aug. 26, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

It was billed as the “world’s largest rubber duck,” and it was big -- six stories of bright yellow vinyl that drew huge crowds to Canalside when it floated down the Buffalo River in the summer.

“I have to admit. I don’t completely understand it, but people are so excited about this big yellow duck,” Sam Hoyt, regional president of Empire State Development Corp., told The News during the duck’s visit.

You didn’t need to understand it, just embrace the goofy idea. Thousands of people did wherever the inflatable duck traveled in the United States.

In Buffalo, the duck’s appearance in August led to massive traffic jams and parking hassles when it coincided with other downtown events, including a concert at KeyBank Center arena and a Bisons baseball game.

How did this all come about? Co-owner Ryan Whaley said he and Craig Samborski came up with the idea in a brain storming session over a couple of beers.

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