SANBORN – The Niagara County Community College Board of Trustees has hired an outside law firm to help investigate allegations that the bidding was tainted on construction of the college's Culinary Institute in Niagara Falls.
The construction management firm on the 2011-12 project, which cost about $17 million, was LPCiminelli, the same firm whose former top executives are under indictment on bid-rigging charges connected to Buffalo Billion construction projects.
Kevin C. Schuler, the former LPCiminelli senior vice president who was among those indicted in the Buffalo Billion case, was a member of the NCCC board at the time LPCiminelli was hired for the Culinary Institute job in early 2011.
However, Daniel C. Oliverio, attorney for LPCiminelli, said Schuler played no role in the awarding of the contract. Oliverio said there was never a vote by the college's trustees on the contract; it was decided by NCCC President James P. Klyczek to hire LPCiminelli.
Emails to and from top NCCC administrators, including Klyczek, are the primary evidence in the case, according to two sources with knowledge of the emails' contents.
"We received some information that leads us to believe an investigation is necessary," said the NCCC board Chairman Vincent R. Ginestre, a North Tonawanda attorney.
Ginestre said the firm of Bond Schoeneck & King was chosen to carry out that probe on the board's behalf. Ginestre said the subject matter will be "the procurement process."
"We intend to conduct a full investigation," the board declared in an official statement released by Ginestre following a meeting Wednesday night with a Bond Schoeneck attorney.
Asked if the board has taken any disciplinary measures, Ginestre said, "No action has been taken at this time."
Oliverio said he believes the emails indicate that Klyczek asked Schuler to explain the meaning of some technical terms in the proposal regarding LPCiminelli's role as construction manager. LPCiminelli did not perform the construction work itself.
A local media report at the time of the announcement quoted Klyczek as saying LPCiminelli was not the lowest priced of the eight companies that bid for the construction management contract. In fact, Oliverio said, Ciminelli's was the highest bid, but the terms of the request for proposals made it clear that price was not the determining factor. The choice was made by scoring interviews with the contenders.
Since the college sought proposals for professional services, not bids, it was not legally required to hire the lowest responsible bidder, Oliverio said.
Local media reports at the time quoted Klyczek as saying LPCiminelli's fee was to be about $1 million.
"Ciminelli was No. 1 on the scoring sheets," Oliverio said. "They negotiated the fee down to where their profit was in the several hundred thousands, not $1 million."
LPCiminelli had a history of working on other projects at NCCC, going back more than a decade. Oliverio said that history required Schuler, when he was appointed to the college board by Gov. George E. Pataki in 2006, to pledge that he would recuse himself on any matters regarding LPCiminelli, while the state personnel office ruled that it would not be necessary for LPCiminelli to stop seeking work on NCCC projects.
CannonDesign was the architectural firm that designed the conversion of part of the former Rainbow Centre Mall into the Culinary Institute, and the law firm of Harter Secrest & Emery was awarded a contract for legal services connected with the project.
However, another law firm, Harris Beach, also was given some legal work, according to one source, who also said there is nothing in the emails that indicates that anyone pressured Klyczek to hire any particular law firm for the project.
At its meeting Wednesday night, the NCCC board also hired Tipping Point Communications, a public relations firm with offices in Buffalo and Rochester, in connection with the LPCiminelli investigation.
Three top LPCiminelli executives were indicted last year on corruption charges over an alleged bid-rigging scheme on the $750 million state contract to build a solar panel factory in South Buffalo. The three – including Louis P. Ciminelli, the chief executive officer of the Buffalo construction firm, and two of his top aides, Schuler and Michael Laipple, resigned earlier this month from the company to try to restore public confidence in the firm.