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Judge sets Oct. 30 trial date for Buffalo Billion case

NEW YORK -- A federal judge here Thursday set an Oct. 30 trial date for the defendants in the "Buffalo Billion" criminal case, although others accused in the sprawling statewide corruption case could be tried separately starting in January.

Attorneys for the three Buffalo defendants -- Louis Ciminelli, Kevin Schuler and Michael Laipple – asked that their trial be moved to Western New York. But U.S. District Court Judge Valerie E. Caproni delayed action on that request and is expected to rule on it this summer.

All eight defendants could go to trial together on Oct. 30. But if the judge splits the case into two, a second trial for the other five defendants would begin in New York on Jan. 8, Caproni said.

[RELATED: Eight indictments handed up in statewide pay-to-play scheme]

Lawyers for Joseph Percoco, a former top aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, and several other defendants have asked that a trial be delayed to next January. In court papers, they cite a "staggering" amount of evidence to sort through before they are ready to go to trial.

It would take a five-member defense team well into 2018 to review all the evidence, Barry A. Bohrer, a lawyer for Percoco and three other defendants, said in a court filing.

A January court date would push the case into the same year as the next election for governor, when Cuomo is expected to run for a third term.

The three Buffalo men, along with several allies of Cuomo, were charged with a variety of felonies last September. The cases stem from separate alleged schemes not only involving the awarding of a contract to build a plant for SolarCity at RiverBend, but also state projects and actions in Albany, Syracuse and Orange County.

Preet Bharara, then the hard-charging U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York., brought charges of alleged bid-rigging for projects in Buffalo related to the SolarCity development, as well as other state contracts.

Defendants include Dr. Alain Kaloyeros, the former head of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, who spearheaded the Buffalo Billion development and other Cuomo administration economic projects.

Todd Howe, one of the original nine defendants in the case, has since pleaded guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

The prosecutor who spoke at the court hearing Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Janis Echenberg, said the gathering of evidence is almost finished.

Prosecutors have compiled 2 million pages of documents and collected evidence from 22 electronic devices, she said.

Given the volume of evidence, Caproni said she expects the trial to take two months, although it could be completed in as little as six weeks.

Lawyers for the Buffalo defendants urged the judge to rule quickly on their motion to move their trial to Western New York.

Judges often wait to decide on such motions until shortly before the trial date, just in case some of the defendants decide to plead guilty rather than go before a jury.

"For the Buffalo defendants, there is no indication or desire along those lines," said Timothy W. Hoover, a lawyer for Ciminelli.

Schuler's lawyer, Terrence M. Connors, told the judge that splitting the case and having separate trials upstate and downstate would be more efficient, given the complexity of the charges,

"It would be a good way to move the case forward," Connors said.

But Echenberg, the prosecutor, noted that there is overlap in the evidence in the case involving the Buffalo defendants and the case against the other defendants.

"That is a key reason we think severance is not appropriate here," she said, referring to the proposal to split the trial in two. "If that is done, there is going to end up with duplication between the two trials."

In addition, there are potential complications with moving the case to Buffalo. The full-time federal judge there, Lawrence J. Vilardo, was Connors' law partner for 30 years and cannot hear the case, and the other Buffalo-based judges are now on senior status.

That means that if the case is moved to the Western District of New York, a Rochester-based judge -- either Chief Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. or Judge Elizabeth A. Wolford – would be likely to hear the case.

It is unclear whether a local trial for the Buffalo-based defendants would take place in Buffalo or in Rochester, where the likely judge is based.

Caproni said she spoke with Wolford on Wednesday about potential trial dates, but the New York judge did not clearly signal that she wants to split the case in two.

"Manhattan is a wonderful place to be," she told the lawyers for the Buffalo defendants.

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