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Cuomo fundraiser attracted donor that's suing mayor

ALBANY – When Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled to Buffalo on Dec. 20, the reason was a secret.

His aides were mum. His public schedule listed no reason for the trip.

Hours before he arrived in Buffalo, it eventually dribbled out that he was going to Buffalo for a political fundraiser.

Five weeks after the event, during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Buffalo News, Cuomo said he was not sure if he attended a fundraiser in Buffalo that December evening.

“I don’t know if there was one on Dec. 20,” he said. “I do a lot of fundraisers in Buffalo.”

As it turns out, Cuomo raised at least $99,000 that night, according to state election board filings and interviews.

The governor focused that Buffalo fundraiser on executives from companies that get state grants and tax credits for affordable housing development.

Hosting the event that evening was Steven J. Weiss, a Buffalo attorney who advises housing developers, including some who attended the fundraiser.

Basil A. Smikle Jr., executive director of the state Democratic Party, did not answer a request from The News to list those attending the event, referring instead to campaign finance reports filed with the state Board of Elections reporting all donors between July 15 and Jan. 15.

One top Democrat who was not at the party was Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who is also the governor’s hand-picked chairman of the state Democratic Party.

But if Brown had attended, it might have been uncomfortable.

Weiss’s clients include Cleveland-based NRP Group, a major player in the affordable housing sector that gets funding from the Cuomo administration’s housing programs. On the day of the fundraiser, according to recent state election records, eight NRP executives – seven residing in Ohio — gave Cuomo a total of $25,000. Company President J. David Heller gave $18,000 of that sum.

NRP also is the company that filed a civil suit against the mayor, alleging Brown engaged in a pay-to-play scheme that ended up killing NRP’s $12 million affordable housing project in the city.

A month after hosting the Cuomo fundraiser, Weiss was in the headlines, claiming in an affidavit that Brown sought to get NRP Properties, a subsidiary of NRP Group, to hire a longtime political ally for the scuttled project that has been at the center of a five-year-old legal dispute. Weiss said Brown suggested the deal would die if his hiring demand wasn’t met. He also said the mayor indicated he was angry about white developers getting all the work on Buffalo’s East Side.

When he met with News editors and reporters Jan. 23, Cuomo said he was unfamiliar with the NRP suit.

Asked if any of the NRP executives who gave to Cuomo that day showed up for the fundraiser, Weiss said, “I prefer not to confirm who was there.’’

He did say, though, that Heller, the NRP head, did not attend. Weiss said about half the attendees came from housing-related circles.

NRP officials did not respond to questions about the fundraiser, including whether all the firm’s executives attended the Buffalo event.

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Cuomo housing policies

Weiss said he hosted the fundraiser because Cuomo has supported housing policies he says have been good for the state.

“We were asked to do so and we’re happy to do so,’’ he said of the gathering.

The governor that night gave a speech that touched on politics and his commitment to continue supporting state funds for affordable housing programs, according to people who attended the gathering.

As the governor spoke about the state’s affordable housing needs, those listening were able to gaze at Lake Erie from Weiss’s 16th floor condo at the Avant that sold in 2014 for $1.2 million. It was advertised then as “the most exciting residential offering in all of Buffalo,” offering two floors of more than 3,000 square feet, three and a half baths, and two stories of glass across its great room.

Weiss represents developers and others in the housing and historic preservation sectors. He also sits on the boards of two key state housing agencies, including the Housing Finance Agency, which provides financing to for-profit and not-for-profit developers to build affordable housing projects across the state. Cuomo appointed him.

Weiss stressed that his work with Cuomo’s Housing Finance Agency is as a volunteer and that he spends 10 to 15 hours a week “helping to craft policy consistent with the governor’s goals and objectives.”

He noted, too, that his nomination by Cuomo to the government panel was approved by the state Senate.

Cuomo in his new budget proposes $800 million in new funding and $2 billion in re-appropriations for various housing initiatives.

Though he could not recall coming to Buffalo on Dec. 20, Cuomo did let drop that Weiss – a Roswell Park Cancer Institute board member — is a “major Buffalo figure” who he understands is soon to be named as the new Roswell Park chairman. The post is a gubernatorial appointment.

Campaign finance reports list Dr. Candace S. Johnson, Roswell Park’s president and chief executive officer, as contributing $1,000 to Cuomo on Jan. 17 – the same day the contributions of several others at the Dec. 20 event are listed. A Roswell Park spokeswoman did not return a call asking if Johnson attended the Weiss-hosted fundraiser.

The dates of some donations from people residing or doing business in Western New York do not necessarily line up with the fundraiser’s date. Nearly $75,000 from Western New York donors who attended the fundraiser – or had others attend on their behalf — was dated as being received in early to mid-January in Cuomo’s recent filing. One of those included a $3,509 “event hosting” donation from Weiss for costs presumably associated with the December fundraiser.

The apparent $99,000 that event raised jumps to $125,000 if contributions by two of Weiss’s law firm partners – recorded as being received a couple weeks after the gathering – are included.

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Housing donors

The donors that night have been involved in housing projects – funded in different ways via state grants or tax credits – and came from various parts of the state.

Brett J. Fitzpatrick of Buffalo, who contributed $8,333.33 to Cuomo in conjunction with the event, said he did not attend, but was happy to contribute. He noted that Weiss’s principal business is housing and tax credits, and said he figured the event’s “general theme was affordable housing.”

“I think everyone is interested in what he has planned for affordable housing,” Fitzpatrick said of Cuomo.

Fitzpatrick’s company — Somerset Development Group LLC — has received state low income and historic tax credits to help about $50 million worth of projects in Buffalo, he added.

“That’s $50 million in projects that could not be done without the Housing Finance Agency,” he said. “Everyone is hoping there will be more state funds available and create more workforce housing in the area.”

Samuel J. Savarino, president and chief executive officer of Savarino Companies, was also happy to contribute.

“I think Gov. Cuomo has done much for New York State and especially Western New York,” he said. “Steve Weiss is a longtime friend. When he asks if I will support an event or a cause, I do.”

Savarino said the small event attracted an “eclectic mix” of guests with “a few familiar faces from the building industry.”

He added: “The event being held as it was, right after the presidential election, I was looking forward to hearing the governor’s remarks. I was not disappointed.”

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Two Rochester donors

John Oster and his business partner, Stephanie Benson, came from Rochester for the event, and made out $5,000 checks apiece for Cuomo’s campaign. He is the president of Edgemere Development, whose local projects include the Lofts at University Heights, a 44-unit apartment building converted from the former Buffalo School 63.

Also part of that project was Benathan Upshaw’s CB-Emmanuel Realty LLC, and Upshaw, who resides in Lockport, gave Cuomo $25,000 at the same time the other Buffalo fundraiser donations flowed. Upshaw did not return a call seeking comment.

In November, Cuomo assisted in the announcement of the two companies’ housing project on Lisbon Avenue, praising it for creating construction jobs and “helping to improve the city’s neighborhoods with quality housing.’’

In April, Cuomo put out a press release touting the start of construction of a Niagara Falls housing project by the two companies – also funded through a variety of state Housing Trust Fund money, tax credits and a grant from Cuomo’s economic development agency.

Oster described his company, which retains Weiss for legal work, as like many in the affordable housing business. They generally don’t own buildings but help put together the complex financing, permitting, design and construction components on behalf of clients, which often includes developers, nonprofits and housing authorities.

Why did he give to Cuomo?

“It’s to keep his eye on the ball,’’ Oster said. “We know the governor has had a long history in housing, and we’re very happy about that. He’s always been a big supporter. Giving to him is a way of letting him know we appreciate that and hope he stays in office.’’

Oster said the fundraiser lasted about two hours, though he believes Cuomo didn’t stay until the end.

Oster said Cuomo talked about a variety of subjects, including a stalled deal between Cuomo and legislative leaders over the release of $2 billion in funds for affordable housing construction.

“He talked about keeping things moving even absent a fully executive MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Legislature,’’ Oster said.

“I thought it was a pretty good event,’’ he added.

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