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5-4 vote keeps NCCC president in place during investigation

Niagara County Community College President James P. Klyczek, under fire for emails that suggest he tried to influence the bidding process for work on the college's Culinary Institute in Niagara Falls, will not be suspended while the college's board of trustees continues to investigate whether those bids were tainted.

Trustees voted 5-4 against placing Klyczek on paid administrative leave, after deliberating in executive session for two hours and 15 minutes inside a board room of the college's Administration Building in Sanborn.

"I believe at this point we have no evidence other than what's been released that criminality has been done," said Vincent M. Sandonato, who voted to retain Klyczek. "So I would urge anyone with any evidence of any wrongdoing to come forward, please supply it at your earliest convenience so that we, the board, can then address any issues and then move on from this, I would say, troubling, time."

One other trustee, Jason J. Cafarella, spoke during the public portion of the meeting. Cafarella argued in favor of putting Klyczek on leave to put some separation between the board and the president and to insure impartiality.

Culinary Institute in Falls now at heart of NCCC controversy

Trustees left hastily after the vote without talking with the press.

Instead, Barbara Pierce of Tipping Point Communications, a public relations firm hired last week by the board, fielded questions from reporters.

"Each board member thought very deliberately about their vote tonight," said Pierce, who was inside the meeting during the executive session. "It was not an easy vote for any of them, whatever side they ended up on."

It was the second time in two weeks the board met to discuss an investigation into whether bidding was tainted on legal, design and construction services for the $26 million project, completed in 2012.

Board Chairman Vincent Ginestre issued a written statement through Pierce saying that the board's decision maintains "consistency" at the college and helps "ensure students receive the same strong education they have come to expect from NCCC."

In addition to Pierce, the trustees were joined for at least part of their deliberations on a videostream from Albany by Johanna Duncan-Poitier, State University of New York senior vice chancellor for community colleges and the education pipeline.

Klyczek, 59, who has been president of the college since 2001, was in a nearby office for much of the meeting.

Feds subpoena NCCC for Culinary Center contract info

He joined the board at the table for the vote and declined to comment afterward.

The board also voted to hire a new law firm, Hancock Estabrook to coordinate the college’s response to a subpoenea from the U.S. Attorney's Office and to conduct an internal investigation of allegations regarding the awarding of contracts related to the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute. The firm that trustees hired last week, Bond Schoeneck and King, had a potential conflict of interest and removed itself from the case.

Following the U.S. Attorney's Office subpoena last week, The Buffalo News obtained a series of emails between Klyczek and two of his vice presidents in which they discuss changing the bid process for legal work midstream and attempting to select a contractor for design and engineering work without a competitive bidding process.

Emails suggest NCCC president tried to influence bid process

One email exchange refers to the college conducting a "charade of an RFP process" before selecting a preferred contractor.

Klyczek pushed for years to grow the college's culinary and hospitality programs by locating them in Niagara Falls, 12 miles from the main NCCC campus in Sanborn. Klyczek maintained that the project could help boost the college's bottom line by attracting more students, while also providing economic developments for Niagara Falls' beleaguered downtown.

The project finally got off the ground when Cordish Co. agreed to donate the long vacant former Rainbow Centre Mall. The state provided the bulk of the funding to overhaul and equip the building. The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute opened in 2012 to great acclaim from city, county and state officials.

But the emails and federal probe cast unflattering new attention on the Culinary Institute, which also has struggled to attract students and meet financial projections.

Klyczek expected enrollment to reach 1,000 students at the Niagara Falls site within five years. Last fall, the site had 378 students, down from the previous two years.

Klyczek said a lack of student housing in Niagara Falls and other factors were keeping enrollment from growing. He also expected the retail operations, which lost nearly $1 million over three years, to break even soon and ultimately generate revenue that could be used toward college programs and services.

Klyczek has faced criticism from faculty who said he focused on the Niagara Falls project at the expense of other academic programs at the Sanborn campus.

In addition, a high-ranking former college administrator accused Klyczek in a federal lawsuit of misappropriating academic funds to pay for a pastry production laboratory that should have been funded by a separate auxiliary entity of the college known as the College Association.

Lawyers for Klyczek and the college denied the claims, and the lawsuit was settled on Feb. 9 without details of the settlement being disclosed.

In addition to the emails related to the bid processes, other emails received by The News show Klyczek making disparaging references to trustees and an off-color remark joking about a noise in the background being the sound of one of the college administrators cutting off his male anatomy.

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